By Brad Biggs, Chicago Tribune reporter
9:54 AM EST, December 24, 2012
GLENDALE, Ariz. — They're alive.
Only because they faced an offense far more disjointed than their own were the Bears able to withstand another lethargic start. Jump-started by two defensive touchdowns — their first since Week 9 — the Bears trounced the woeful Cardinals on Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium.
The 28-13 victory improved the Bears to 9-6 and kept them in the NFC playoff race. They need to win the regular-season finale against the Lions in Detroit on Sunday and have the Packers defeat the Vikings at the Metrodome to claim a wild-card spot. The Bears have won eight of their last nine vs. the Lions, who will look to be a spoiler while trying to get wide receiver Calvin Johnson 2,000 yards on the season. He needs 108.
The Packers will be motivated against the Vikings with a first-round bye and the No. 2 seed in the NFC on the line.
"I've always been a big Packers fan," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "It's not hard at all for me. We have a tough division, but as we said this week, we can't do much about that. All we can do is get a win against Detroit."
Reserve cornerback Zack Bowman, playing against the Cardinals' heavy package, recovered a fumble by Beanie Wells for the first score of the game and Charles Tillman returned an interception 10 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter, the Bears' ninth defensive touchdown of the season, leaving them one behind the 1998 Seahawks for the most in NFL history.
Those plotting an end to the Smith era have to hold on now. Most consider it unlikely the Bears will have a housecleaning project under general manager Phil Emery if the club reaches the playoffs. Emery has spoken publicly only once since the season began, during the off week.
But the Bears are not going to go anywhere in the postseason if the offense doesn't find a level of consistency. Running back Matt Forte once again is nursing a right ankle injury as he was knocked out of the game in the third quarter after carrying 12 times for 88 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown. Wearing a walking boot afterward, he declared he would play against the Lions, but it is too early to know.
"With running lanes like that, you can make moves in the open field and get extra yards," Forte said. "It is unfortunate I had to leave the game, but I felt like we were really starting to roll in the running game."
Quarterback Jay Cutler missed on 10 of his first 11 passes, yet the Bears took a 14-3 lead while he was misfiring. Cutler put together a nice drive at the end of the second quarter, firing an 11-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Marshall, but that was about it for rhythm in the passing game. He finished 12 of 26 for 146 yards, but he didn't turn the ball over.
"It wasn't pretty," Cutler said. "I thought the offensive line did a great job. I missed a lot of throws."
Cardinals quarterback Ryan Lindley was benched for Brian Hoyer after the Tillman interception and the Cardinals struggled moving the ball at all, converting only three of 15 third downs. Julius Peppers had a season-high three sacks to give him 111/2, his most in three seasons with the Bears. The biggest play for the Cardinals was Justin Bethel's 82-yard return of a blocked Olindo Mare field-goal attempt.
So, the Bears, thanks in part to the Ravens' victory against the Giants on Sunday, have a chance as they prepare for the Lions. No one knew how they would respond after losing five of their previous six games. Their mantra has been that the playoffs already have started. That is why it wasn't surprising to hear the hollering through the cinder-block walls of the locker room afterward.
"We feel like we have new life," said cornerback Tim Jennings, who returned after missing two games with a dislocated right shoulder. "We forgot what it felt like to be in the win column."
The last time the Bears won in Arizona during the regular season, then-Cardinals coach Denny Green said to "crown their ass!" No one is going to crown these Bears, but they can't be written off either.
"We need some help," Marshall said. "But the only thing we can control is going out there and playing against the Lions."
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