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JENSEN: Tim Jennings comes up big when it matters most

Bears cornerback Tim Jennings races endzone after his interceptigiving Bears 20-19 lead fourth quarter Chicago Bears 23-22 wover CarolinPanthers Sunday

Bears cornerback Tim Jennings races to the endzone after his interception giving the Bears a 20-19 lead in the fourth quarter of the Chicago Bears 23-22 win over the Carolina Panthers Sunday October 28, 2012 at Soldier Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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There’s much to debate about what Bears cornerback Tim Jennings is or isn’t.

A Pro Bowl cornerback? An overachiever or an underachiever? A sidekick or a star?

But there’s an undeniable truth about Jennings, one he reinforced in spades Sunday against the Carolina Panthers at Soldier Field: He is resilient.

Five-time Pro Bowl receiver Steve Smith had averaged 149 yards in his three previous regular-season games against the Bears, and he had seven catches for 118 yards through three quarters Sunday. Smith made a ridiculously athletic 47-yard catch over Jennings with about three minutes left in the third quarter to set up a 43-yard field goal that gave the Panthers a 19-7 lead.

By the end of the third, the Panthers had converted 8 of 15 third-down attempts, with Smith accounting for half of those conversions, one of them via an illegal-contact penalty against Jennings.

The single-coverage game plan — the one that had worked so effectively last Monday against the Detroit Lions with Charles Tillman shadowing Calvin Johnson — wasn’t working on this day. But neither defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli nor Jennings nor anyone else on the Bears’ defense panicked.

‘‘[Smith] is not an assignment you can just give to anybody,’’ defensive end Israel Idonije said. ‘‘We knew it was going to be a dogfight.

‘‘[Smith is] a competitor. He’s a dog, so we had to put our dog on him. Tim went out there and battled, and he made some plays.’’

Near the end of the first half, with the Panthers threatening to get into field-goal range, Jennings intercepted a weak pass attempt by Cam Newton, who was being dragged down by defensive end Julius Peppers. That pass was intended for former Bears tight end Greg Olsen.

Then with less than seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, Newton threw a pass intended for Smith, who slipped and tumbled to the turf. Jennings coolly intercepted the pass and breezed into the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown.

‘‘That was the best play he made all game on me,’’ Smith said. ‘‘But it was a key moment in the game, changed the momentum.

‘‘I know you want to pump him up, but I’ve been kicking his ass every time I come up here, and today wasn’t no different. Do you disagree?’’

I certainly do. For all his receiving yards, Smith still hasn’t reached pay dirt in four regular-season games against the Bears. In addition, the Panthers are 1-3 in those games.

The outcomes of many NFL games can hinge on which way a handful of plays go. That pass was one of them, and Jennings made the play. He didn’t drop the ball, and he didn’t trip on his way to the end zone.

‘‘When you’re playing a guy like Steve, you’re going to win some and lose some,’’ cornerback Charles Tillman said. ‘‘But, in the end, you’ve got to keep on playing. And you saw what [Jennings] did: He kept playing. . . .

‘‘Big-time players make big-time plays, and he came through when he needed to. He’s my hero.’’

In his six previous NFL seasons, Jennings had seven interceptions. He has six this season, which leads the league.

But given the way Tillman is playing, Jennings knows he’ll be tested some more.

‘‘They’re going to my side fairly a lot because Charles Tillman is playing great football, so I know I’m going to have a whole lot of opportunities,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s what’s got me [six] interceptions so far.’’

There are sure to be ups and downs for Jennings, but he’s not going to get complacent.

‘‘We’ve still got plenty more games, and I’m going to have plenty more opportunities,’’ he said. ‘‘I’ve just got to stay on it, keep working and finish the
season strong.’’

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