ATLANTA — Jason Elam stood on the sideline with head bowed, figuring he had cost the Atlanta Falcons a win.
Then, a kickoff return and a quick pass gave him a second chance.
In the blink of an eye, he went from goat to hero.
Atoning for his miss a few minutes earlier, Elam booted a 48-yard field goal on the final play to give the Atlanta Falcons a stunning 22-20 victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday.
“I’ve been in some wild games,” said rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, “but I think this one trumps them all.”
In the last 8 minutes, there was a goal-line stand by the Falcons, an 85-yard kickoff return by Atlanta’s Jerious Norwood, Elam’s first missed field goal in 31 attempts, a gutty drive by the Bears that culminated with Kyle Orton’s touchdown pass to Rashied Davis with 11 seconds remaining and, finally, Elam’s winning kick after Ryan hooked up with Michael Jenkins on a 26-yard completion.
“That is one of the most exciting games I’ve ever been in,” first-year Atlanta coach Mike Smith said. “There were a lot of ebbs and flows.”
The Falcons erupted in a playoff-like celebration near the middle of the field. Smith lifted Ryan in the air. Elam was swarmed over by his teammates, having atoned for the miss with his fifth field goal of the game, equaling his career high. He also connected from 29, 48, 32 and 41 yards.
Six games into what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, Atlanta (4-2) already has matched its win total from a forgettable 2007 season. Suddenly, the playoffs don’t appear out of the question.
“I think this is going to do great things for our confidence and chemistry,” Elam said. “Hopefully we can do something pretty special down the stretch.”
Elam was really on the hook after hooking a 33-yard attempt wide left with 2:43 left, costing the Falcons an insurmountable nine-point lead.
The Bears took advantage, quickly driving down the field to go ahead for the first time in the game when Davis ran by Falcons cornerback Chris Houston to haul in Orton’s perfectly thrown pass in the corner of the end zone. Robbie Gould booted through the extra point that gave Chicago a 20-19 lead.
But the surprising Falcons, coming off an upset of the Packers in Green Bay, weren’t done. With many fans heading for the exits, Gould pooched the ensuing kickoff, and Harry Douglas managed a 10-yard return to the Atlanta 44.
Ryan, playing with the poise of a 10-year veteran, calmly threw a pass to Jenkins along the left sideline. The receiver made the catch in front of safety Mike Brown, got both feet down and tumbled out of bounds with 1 second left.
After a short delay to allow the officials to confirm on the replay that Jenkins’ catch was good, Elam lined up for the winning kick. This one curled right through the uprights, clearing the crossbar with plenty to spare as the final second ticked off.
It was the 16th game-winning kick of Elam’s career in the final 2 minutes of regulation or overtime, according to STATS Inc. Last year, he made four of them for the Broncos. Now, he’s got his first one with the Falcons.
“I’m really happy it went through,” Elam said with a smile that was more relief than jubilation.
It was a bitter loss for the first-place Bears (3-3), who appeared to have pulled off an improbable comeback of their own. Orton completed seven passes for 71 yards on Chicago’s final drive and finished 26 of 43 for 286 yards.
“You have to play a full game,” Orton said. “We didn’t.”
The Bears quarterback was trumped by Ryan, who has quickly made Atlanta fans forget Michael Vick. The No. 3 overall pick completed 22 of 31 for a career-best 301 yards, including a 3-yard scoring pass to Roddy White with 13:25 remaining after the Bears closed to 12-10 with the game’s first touchdown.
White missed two days of practice during the week after taking a blow to the head, but he looked just fine on game day with nine catches for 112 yards.
Chicago drove within inches of the end zone, but Matt Forte was stuffed on fourth down as he attempted to leap across the line. Michael Boley came in low to trip up the runner, then Lawyer Milloy and Keith Brooking finished him off.
But Chicago drove back into position for Gould’s second field goal, a 32-yarder with 4 minutes to go. On the ensuing kickoff, Norwood broke off a long return for the second week in a row.
But that big play was negated by Elam’s miss, which snapped a streak of 30 straight field goals — his last 15 attempts of the 2007 season, and his first 15 with the Falcons.