DENVER, NOV. 16 -- Greatness gave way to desperation and finally post-game anger tonight for the Chicago Bears. A 14-point lead and one of quarterback Jim McMahon's greatest games meant nothing because Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway's passes tamed the Monsters of the Midway at Mile High Stadium tonight.

The Bears kept wondering how many more times they could fall behind and wait for McMahon to throw them a life raft. Tonight they got their answer: less than zero.

Elway's three touchdown passes and a four-yard touchdown run by Steve Sewell with five minutes to play boosted the Broncos to a 31-29 victory that gave Denver some hope of catching San Diego in the AFC West, and gave Chicago Coach Mike Ditka and his Bears a giant headache.

Chicago (7-2) still leads the NFC Central by two games over Minnesota. But the loss was the regular Bears' first this season and broke a 25-game winning streak in games McMahon has started.

Ironically, McMahon (21 completions in 34 attempts for 311 yards, three touchdowns, 1 interception) passed for more than 300 yards for the first time in his career. But he was matched, throw for throw, by Elway (21 of 40, 341 yards, 2 interceptions) who ate up the Chicago secondary and played the entire game without being sacked.

If it's still parity the NFL is seeking, the league may now have found it. San Diego is the only team with one loss and nobody -- certainly not this battered, defenseless Chicago club -- looks unbeatable going into the bell lap.

If some of the Bears were willing to dismiss this as just a mid-season game which probably means nothing, Ditka wasn't. He ripped the team in general, defensive end Richard Dent specifically, and said his defensive players"flopped around like dead fish."

That was just for starters.

"We've lost discipline," Ditka screamed afterward. "We've lost the will to excel. We're just one of 28 teams now. I guess they'll just play out the string."

When someone asked if Ditka thought his team could fix whatever is wrong by Sunday, Ditka shouted, "No. I don't see how we can get it back in a week. They aren't willing to give it and I found that out tonight. I guess they'll just take a paycheck and play."

Ditka just couldn't stomach two missed extra point attempts (actually, the snaps were bobbled by holder Mike Tomczak) and a play in the first half which would have given the Bears a 21-7 lead.

Instead of diving into the end zone from Denver's 1-yard line, or handing the ball to Walter Payton, who had his best game of the season (12 carries, 73 yards), McMahon thought the play called for a triple option. McMahon exercised that third option, pitching to William (The Refrigerator) Perry, who fumbled.

Denver recovered, drove down for the tying touchdown and changed the game for good.

McMahon admitted as much, and took blame for the loss. "I messed up," he said. "I went to put the ball in his stomach and he wasn't expecting it and shouldn't have been."

"If we go up, 21-7, it's a different game," McMahon said. "I made a couple of stupid plays. That fumble and the interception (in the fourth quarter which led to Denver's wining touchdown). I should take the heat. I made some key mistakes that they turned into scores."

In its first two offensive series, though, the Chicago offense looked untouchable. McMahon completed all three of his pases for 81 yards, including a 51-yard touchdown pass to Willie Gault for a 7-0 lead.

The next time McMahon trotted onto the field, it was more of the same. Five passes, five completions, 44 yards and another touchdown. This one went six yards to tight end Cap Boso and put the Bears up 14-0. For the game, McMahon had completed eight of eight for 125 yards and two touchdowns.

By halftime, however, Elway had thrown three touchdown passes and the Broncos led, 21-14. A minute into the second quarter, he led an 82-yard drive ending with Vance Johnson catching a tipped pass for a 22-yard touchdown reception.

The Bears had a chance to rebuild their 14-point lead, as McMahon threw his ninth consecutive pass and Chicago moved inside Denver's 5-yard line. But for some reason, Ditka and McMahon came up with the worst possible calls.

Mike Haynes scooped up Perry's fumble at the goal line and returned it 24 yards. The Denver crowd, which had been fairly quiet, shook the stadium.

From his own 24, Elway drove the Broncos 76 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown pass to Mark Jackson, for a 14-14 tie.

After a Chicago punt, Elway hit rookie Ricky Nattiel for a 24-yard gain on third down, then for 35 yards and a go-ahead touchdown.

Even when the Bears regained the lead in the third quarter, Ditka stalked the sideline, fuming. McMahon's 26-yard touchdown pass to Gault beat a Broncos blitz, but Tomczak couldn't hold the extra-point snap properly and the Bears had to settle for being behind, 21-20, instead of tied.

However, Elway threw an interception into the hands of Bears linebacker Ron Rivera -- injured Otis Wilson's replacement -- who returned it 15 yards to Denver's 15. Three plays later, with Perry in -- this time as a decoy -- McMahon took it in from the 1. Tomczak muffed the extra-point hold again, leaving the Bears ahead, 26-21, with five minutes left in the quarter.

Now the question was whether the Bears would feel comfortable going into the fourth quarter with a lead. The answer was no.