JENSEN: Bears use familiar recipe to cook up win over woeful Cards
BY SEAN JENSEN firstname.lastname@example.org December 23, 2012 10:12PM
Charles Tillman (33) is all smiles after returning a third-quarter interception for a touchdown. | Paul Connors~AP
Updated: January 25, 2013 6:20AM
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Lovie Smith didn’t froth at the mouth, didn’t unleash a string of profanities. But the Bears coach delivered a clear point in a five-minute message to his team Saturday night.
“Coach made it clear that our playmakers — not just our veterans — needed to come out and make plays,” Bears cornerback Tim Jennings said. “And as you could see, some of the guys did, and we needed that.”
Julius Peppers tied a career-high with three sacks. Charles Tillman returned an interception for a touchdown. Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte scored, and Jay Cutler completed some timely passes and avoided turnovers.
The superstars powered the Bears to a 28-13 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, snapping a three-game losing streak and keeping alive playoff hopes.
“We had some big-time plays,” Bears center Roberto Garza said. “Getting this win is huge, but we got to clean things up and keep getting better.”
There’s plenty for the Bears to improve on.
Special teams allowed two glaring mistakes: a blocked field goal and a muffed punt return. And the offense converted just three of 13 third-down plays and didn’t complete a pass until early in the second quarter.
Luckily, these are the Cardinals, a woeful team with the league’s worst offense that just snapped a nine-game losing streak.
The Bears rediscovered themselves in this game, relying on the defense to set the tone and perhaps score points, and counting on the offense to limit turnovers and make a handful of plays.
The Bears defense responded, forcing three turnovers and scoring off of two of them, and limiting the Cardinals to just 29 rushing yards. The offense didn’t turn the ball over, and Cutler completed passes of 30 and 35 yards to Marshall and rookie Alshon Jeffery, respectively, while Forte averaged a healthy 7.3 yards per run before leaving the game with an ankle injury.
Perhaps most encouraging from Sunday was the play of the Bears’ offensive line, which opened up some gaping holes for Forte and provided Cutler more than adequate protection.
The lone sack by the Cardinals shouldn’t have happened, since Cutler had a clear lane to the left sideline but took off late and was pulled down for a one-yard loss.
“I thought the offensive line did a great job,” said Cutler, who completed just 12 of 26 passes for 146 yards. “I missed a lot of throws. Wish we had a few back, but we got the win, which is the big part.”
“This is a very good defensive football team,” Smith said of the Cardinals. “We didn’t expect to come in here and score 50 points and throw for 400 yards against them, but I thought we made the plays when we had to.”
This Bears’ template for success was familiar, except for one glaring area: special teams. The Cardinals were superior on special teams, with Devin Hester making poor decisions on punt returns and the Bears starting four series inside their own 10-yard line.
But a staggering team can’t worry about style points. Desperate for any inkling of momentum, the Bears earned a convincing win.
“Big win for our team, 9-6,” Smith said, “in position for the biggest game we’ve had in a long time coming up against Detroit.”
And for the Bears to avoid the distinction of becoming just the second team since 1990 to miss the playoffs after a 7-1 start, Smith will need some luck and his playmakers to step up one more time.