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Sports

December 23, 2012

NFL: Battered Bears look to desert to sustain playoff hopes

TEMPE, Ariz. — They are two teams that got off to fine starts only to see the situations disintegrate.

Both have strong defenses with a knack for taking the ball away from the opponent.

There are many similarities between the Chicago and Arizona teams that meet Sunday in the Cardinals’ final home game of the season — and one big difference.

The Bears still have hope.

A month and a half ago, Chicago was 7-1 and the class of the NFC North. After five losses in six games, the Bears need to win at Arizona on Sunday and get help from others to have a chance for a shot at a wild card spot.

“In order for us to be relevant, we have to win,” Chicago coach Lovie Smith said. “We’re aware of the path we have taken, and we accept that.”

Seattle is the wild card leader at 9-5. Chicago is among five NFC teams at 8-6. If teams win out, tiebreaker scenarios mostly don’t favor the Bears. One thing for sure, another loss could virtually end any shot for Chicago.

The frustration boiled over in the aftermath of last Sunday 21-13 home loss to Green Bay, when wide receiver Brandon Marshall demanded accountability from his teammates, while linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs complained about the team being booed by its fans.

“This is a winning team. This is a winning organization,” Marshall said later in the week, trying to explain his earlier, emotional comments. “So that’s what really frustrates me and other guys.

“When you look at what’s been going on these past few weeks. This is a winning team. You have high-character guys. You have guys that fight. You have guys that respond to adversity the right way. You have guys that work hard. So, we’re close. We’re close and we have the guys. We have the guys upstairs, in the locker room to really get it done and we just need to do it.”

The issues have been mainly on offense. Chicago has scored 17 points or fewer in the five recent losses. In his last five games, Jay Cutler has thrown for five touchdowns and six interceptions. Against the Packers, he was 12 for 21 for 135 yards.

Cutler points to injuries as the biggest reason for the Bears’ offensive problems.

“We’ve had to mix and match a lot of the offensive line, a lot of different combinations,” he said. “Alshon (Jeffery) has been hurt, Devin Hester has been hurt. Earl Bennett has been hurt. We just haven’t had a constant guy on the other side of Brandon.”

Chicago has faded to 29th in offense in the NFL. Arizona remains 32nd and last.

The Cardinals (5-9) ended a nine-game losing streak last week by beating Detroit 38-10 despite gaining just 196 yards. Chicago managed only 168 yards against Green Bay.

Which brings us to the defense, and that’s a different story.

Chicago leads the NFL in takeaways with 37. The Cardinals are fifth with 32. With three interceptions, two returned for touchdowns, against the Lions, Arizona leads the NFL with 22, one more than Chicago.

Given those statistics, turnovers could well be the deciding factor.

“Hopefully it will be no turnovers on our part, because we’ve certainly given our share of those things up,” Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “We talked about it this week already. You’ve got to preach that extra ball security. You do it every week, but this team has done a good job, I’m talking about Chicago, of getting the ball out, so you’ve got to be very aware of that.”

Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald marvels at the Bears’ ability to force fumbles, particularly the ball-stripping skills of cornerback Charles Tillman. Tillman has forced 10 fumbles.

“Tillman could definitely teach an instructional tape on how to strip the football,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody as talented at forcing turnovers as him, and to be a cornerback? If you were a linebacker that would be a heck of a year, but playing at cornerback, that’s unbelievable. But the whole defense does it. They just have a knack for it. That’s why they’re leading the league in turnovers right now. We have to be very careful not only just throwing the ball, but we have to be careful when we actually have the ball in our hands, make sure we’re protecting it at all times.”

The Bears and Cardinals each have 36 sacks this season. Chicago has returned seven interceptions for scores. Last week against Detroit, Arizona brought back two interceptions for touchdowns. A third was brought back to the Lions 3 to set up another TD.

The Cardinals are 4-3 at home, but there will be a big contingent of Bears fans on hand for a game that might be Arizona’s last with Whisenhunt on the sideline. Team President Michael Bidwill said he will decide after the season if Whisenhunt will be back for the final year of his contract.

Chicago’s Smith, in his ninth season as Bears coach, too finds himself in what’s become a familiar role as the object of job speculation.

“I coach the same way that I’ve coached every day that I’ve been a head coach here and that’s not going to change,” Smith said. “Whether it’s during the 7-1 or during the period that we’re going through right now. I’ve been the head coach here for a long time for a reason and, again, I plan on being the coach here for a long time and winning more games and that all starts with getting a win this weekend.”

The last time the Bears came to Arizona was a memorable Monday night in 2006, when Chicago rallied to win 24-23, prompting then-Cardinals coach Dennis Green’s “They are who we thought they were” postgame meltdown.

Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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