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NFL Preview - Arizona (4-3) at Chicago (4-3)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Arizona Cardinals have yet to lose on the road this season, while the Chicago Bears have won every one of their home games thus far in 2009. Only one of those undefeated records will remain intact, however, when the two playoff hopefuls get together this Sunday at Soldier Field.
While year one of the Jay Cutler tenure in Chicago has so far produced overall mixed results, both the quarterback and his team have had nothing but success at their historic home venue this season. The Bears have won all three of their games in the Windy City, and only one of Cutler's 11 interceptions in a Chicago uniform has come at Soldier Field.
Chicago's most recent home triumph came at the expense of the hapless Cleveland Browns last Sunday, with a strong defensive effort keying a 30-6 rout. The Bears limited an inept Browns offense to 191 total yards and forced five turnovers, including a 21-yard interception return touchdown by cornerback Charles Tillman late in the fourth quarter that accounted for the final score.
The easy victory helped take some of the sting out of a humbling 45-10 loss in Cincinnati the week prior, in which Bears castoff Cedric Benson scorched his old club for a personal-best 189 rushing yards.
Chicago will try to duplicate last weekend's opportunistic ways against a puzzling Arizona squad that was extraordinarily careless in protecting the football in its last outing, a 34-21 setback at home to previously-struggling Carolina. Quarterback Kurt Warner tied a dubious career-high by throwing five interceptions and also lost a fumble that led to a Panthers' score.
Carolina also had its way at the line of scrimmage, racking up an eye-opening 270 yards on the ground on a Cardinals defense that entered the contest ranked first against the run.
The loss was the third in four home games this season for Arizona (4-3), which enters Sunday's play with a one-game lead on San Francisco for first place in the NFC West. The defending conference champions haven't brought those troubles along on the road, though, having gone 3-0 in enemy stadiums in 2009 and outscoring the opposition by an 82-37 margin in those matchups.
In addition, the Cardinals, who had a three-game winning streak halted by Carolina, have not dropped consecutive games at any point this year.
Chicago also brings a 4-3 mark into Sunday's tilt, good for a second-place tie with Green Bay in the NFC North.
The Bears hold a 55-26-6 edge in their all-time series with the Cardinals, a rivalry that dates back to the 1920 season when the then-Chicago Cardinals defeated the then-Decatur Staleys, 7-6, at Normal Park. The teams are the only two original NFL franchises that remain today.
The Bears have won the last three meetings between the two, including a 24-23 primetime win on the road when the clubs last met, in 2006. That win, in which Chicago trailed 23-3 in the third quarter and committed a total of six turnovers, is best-remembered for an infamous tirade by then-Cardinals coach Dennis Green in the postgame press conference.
The Cardinals' last win in the series came in 1998, and they are 0-2 in Chicago since the then-St. Louis Cardinals won there in 1982.
Chicago head coach Lovie Smith is 1-0 against the Cardinals as a head coach, while Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt will be meeting both Smith and Chicago for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Whisenhunt will likely be keeping his fingers crossed for unseasonably mild weather in the Windy City this weekend, considering his Cardinals team is the most pass-oriented in the NFL. Arizona will also need a bounce-back performance out of Warner (1914 passing yards, 11 TD, 11 INT), who's beginning to show the effects of advancing age, following last Sunday's disaster. The 38-year-old's average of 6.8 yards per attempt is his lowest since 2003, although he's played his best games on the road this season. The Cardinals aren't short on receivers, boasting a pair of game-changing talents in Larry Fitzgerald (47 receptions, 509 yards, 5 TD) and Anquan Boldin (35 receptions, 1 TD), an excellent No. 3 wideout in Steve Breaston (30 receptions, 400 yards, 1 TD), and one of the league's best pass-catching running backs in second-year pro Tim Hightower (206 rushing yards, 5 TD, 39 receptions). Boldin's effectiveness over the past few weeks has been slowed by a lingering ankle sprain, however, and the team is considering holding the gutsy three-time Pro Bowl honoree out on Sunday in order to get him closer to full strength. His absence may still not reduce Warner's workload, as Arizona ranks last in the NFL in both rushing offense (64.9 ypg) and rush attempts (19.7 per game). Rookie running back Beanie Wells (238 rushing yards, 1 TD, 4 receptions) is starting to get more involved in the game plan, however, and put up career- bests of 68 yards and 14 carries in the Cards' Week 7 victory over the New York Giants.
After being gashed for 215 rushing yards and 448 total in its lopsided loss to Cincinnati two weeks back, the Chicago defense got a measure of redemption by dominating the bumbling Browns last Sunday. Such inconsistent showings have been the norm for a unit that's been hampered by season-ending injuries to superstar middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and projected strongside starter Pisa Tinoisamoa, although a still-solid front seven possesses a four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker in leading tackler Lance Briggs (50 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and two proven pass rushers in ends Adewale Ogunleye (16 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Alex Brown (26 tackles, 3.5 sacks). Nick Roach (38 tackles, 1 sack) has acquitted himself well in place of Urlacher to help soften the blow, and the promoted special-teamer forced a pair of fumbles to help shut down Cleveland a week ago. The Bears are 12th overall in pass defense (199.4 ypg) and held Cleveland's anemic attack to 74 net yards through the air, and figure to have a good shot at winning if they can force Warner into mistakes. Chicago is 4-1 this season when it has at least two takeaways.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Like the Cardinals, Chicago has also had its problems in trying to establish a consistent running game. The Bears stand an unwanted 26th in rushing offense, with workhorse back Matt Forte' (408 rushing yards, 3 TD, 24 receptions) averaging a pedestrian 3.5 yards per carry on the year. Much of the blame for that lackluster output falls on a shaky offensive line that let Cutler (1677 passing yards, 11 TD, 11 INT) get sacked four times and absorb a litany of hard hits against Cleveland. The Bears need to protect their big investment at the quarterback position, as Cutler's play has often dictated the team's end result. The offseason acquisition has been intercepted only two times in Chicago's four wins, but has thrown two or more picks in each of the club's three defeats. Cutler is developing a strong rapport with Devin Hester (35 receptions, 454 yards, 3 TD), who's been showing signs of emerging into the No. 1 receiver this offense has been seeking for years. Over the last three games, the converted defensive back has averaged seven catches and 83 yards. Young wideouts Earl Bennett (25 receptions) and Johnny Knox (24 receptions, 3 TD) have also made steady contributions to Chicago's 15th-rated passing attack (226.9 ypg), with former first-round pick Greg Olsen (22 receptions, 3 TD) lending a field-stretching presence at tight end.
The Arizona defense should be coming in motivated after being uncharacteristically manhandled at the point of attack by the Panthers last week. A group that had surrendered a scant 67.5 rushing yards through the first six games allowed Carolina's backfield duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to amass 245 on a combined 40 carries, which successfully took the burden off mistake-prone quarterback Jake Delhomme. The Cardinals still rank a respectable eighth overall versus the run (96.4 ypg) and have plenty of potential difference-makers on the defensive side. Leading tackler Karlos Dansby (51 tackles, 0.5 sacks), who had 12 stops in last Sunday's loss, headlines a quality four-man linebacking corps that also includes veteran pass rushers Chike Okeafor (22 tackles, 3 sacks) and Bertrand Berry (4 tackles, 3 sacks) on the outside, while hard-hitting strong safety Adrian Wilson (31 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 INT) is regarded as one of the premier run-stoppers at his spot. Rangy cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (21 tackles, 9 PD) and free safety Antrel Rolle (34 tackles, 1.5 sacks) are both athletic ballhawks who have each garnered three interceptions on the year.
Warner and Cutler have each put forth their share of erratic performances this season, but both should be airing it enough this week to make the two quarterbacks usable fantasy players that carry some risk. That scenario bodes well for Hester, Chicago's clear-cut top option at wide receiver, as well as the Cardinals' dangerous tandem of Fitzgerald and Breaston. The hobbling Boldin needs to be sat this week, however, as he'll be hard-pressed to be a factor even if he does play on Sunday. Olsen's been a hit-or-miss guy at the tight end spot, but is a good choice for those needing a bye-week fill-in. Despite the potential pass-happy storyline, there is still some value to be found at running back, as Hightower's short-yardage abilities and receiving skills give the Cards' sophomore good upside and Forte has few challengers for touches. Wells owners still need to be patient with the 2009 first-round pick. His time as a fantasy factor will soon come, it's just not now. Finally, with a pair of signal-callers who can be susceptible to interceptions and take a lot of sacks, either defense deserves starting consideration.
In a matchup where neither team can be defined as a model of consistency, it's difficult to select a winner with a high dose of confidence. However, it is fairly safe to say that this game will most likely be determined by the play of the quarterbacks, since both clubs have been struggling to run the ball effectively all year long. Warner's pedigree could give the Cardinals an edge here, but last week's horrific outing can't be dismissed as simply an aberration, as the fact of the matter is the two-time league MVP hasn't been playing at the level he did during last season's memorable run to the Super Bowl. While Cutler can certainly be spotty, the younger and stronger-armed gunslinger's tools and moxie make him the more likely candidate to deliver the one big play that could be the difference in what shapes up to be a tightly- contested affair between evenly-matched teams.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 20, Cardinals 17
11/05 17:13:40 ET