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'Right back in this thing'
Good thing for the Bears that cornerback R.W. McQuarters' memory is shorter than his hair.
The last time McQuarters tried stopping the opponent's elite wide receiver while trying to protect a fourth-quarter lead at Soldier Field, two weeks ago Sunday against the St. Louis Rams and Torry Holt, he gave up a key 21-yard catch that kept alive a game-winning drive.
This time, with the Bears leading the Arizona Cardinals 7-3 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, neither that failure nor any chance of another one crossed McQuarters' mind as he lined up across from NFL rookie-of-the-year candidate Anquan Boldin.
"I don't worry about all that other stuff, man," McQuarters said after the Bears' 28-3 romp over the Cardinals. "People ask about me going in the tank this season after [losing his starting job]. Well, I don't even know what the tank is."
The Cardinals might have a good idea. They spent the fourth quarter there during a 21-point Bears outburst that began with McQuarters' interception.
With 14 minutes 47 seconds left, Cardinals quarterback Jeff Blake overthrew Boldin, and McQuarters leaped high to pick it off at the Cardinals' 41. His 29-yard return down the Arizona sideline set up a 10-yard touchdown pass from Kordell Stewart to Dez White two plays later.
Asked if he thought that turnover changed the game, McQuarters smiled and said, "I think it did."
His teammates remain convinced that it may have changed their season too. The team's most lopsided win in two seasons revived locker-room discussion of NFC playoff scenarios and divisional tiebreakers as the 5-7 Bears cling to the notion that they are two missed field goals out of first place. The Bears regained hope after the 7-5 Vikings lost Sunday and the 6-6 Packers fell on Thanksgiving, and they took care of business at home.
"We're right back in this thing," wide receiver Marty Booker said.
Monday's calendar marks the beginning of December, but Sunday marked the beginning of the postseason as far as the Bears are concerned.
"It's like we're in the playoffs right now," defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "We have to win them all. If we don't win, we're out."
The Bears will enter the one-and-done phase of their season with a rejuvenated starting quarterback in Stewart, who completed 22-of-37 passes for 284 yards and two TDs without an interception. Stewart, subbing for the injured Chris Chandler, added an 8-yard touchdown run that capped his most complete effort as a Bear and his best day as an NFL quarterback in almost two years.
"That's what we want from Kordell Stewart," coach Dick Jauron said.
Jauron all but officially named Stewart the starter next Sunday against Green Bay while reserving the right to see how Chandler's right shoulder heals.
"We'll see, but off that performance ... we'll have to see how Chris is, but [Stewart] had a terrific day," Jauron said.
Stewart deftly played the role of diplomat, though he grinned when asked the difference between him losing his starting job to an apparent thigh injury earlier this season and the possibility of Chandler keeping his when healthy despite Stewart's performance Sunday.
"I'll let you talk about that story," Stewart said. "I'm not going to indulge in that."
Instead, Stewart elaborated on the merits of offensive coordinator John Shoop's game plan that, for the first time this season, effectively meshed Stewart's multidimensional skills with the Bears' offensive scheme. The same offense Stewart held responsible for limiting him in the first five games, he held in high esteem Sunday for finally adapting.
"It wasn't trying to make everything contingent around what I do [Sunday]," Stewart said. "When you force things, it causes us to try too hard. We did an excellent job allowing some guys to make some plays."
Two Bears rookies, running back Brock Forsey and wide receiver Justin Gage, made some of the biggest plays on offense.
Forsey, thrust into action after starter Anthony Thomas came down with viral pneumonia Saturday, made the NFL's 12th-ranked rushing defense look mediocre in gaining 134 yards on 27 carries. The rookie sixth-round draft pick from Boise Statea "Forsey to be reckoned with," as one fan yelled as the players ran off the fieldcapped the day's scoring with a 9-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
He felt humbled by the postgame attention as well as breaking the 100-yard barrier in the same game that the NFL's all-time leading rusher, Emmitt Smith of the Cardinals, ended up with minus-3 yards on one carry.
"Just to be playing on the same field as that guy is good company to be in," Forsey said. "Our 'O' line did a great job opening up holes, and I was just trying to hit them."
Gage became the first Bears receiver this season to surpass the 100-yard mark in a game, with four catches for 100 yards, including a 57-yarder on the first series that announced that the coaching staff hadn't forgotten about him. Gage went the previous two games without a catch, and Shoop practically has bruises from kicking himself over that drought.
"I was really disappointed with myself that [Gage] didn't have more snaps in Denver, and with the change in quarterbacks at halftime and the way our defense was playing, I think we did play a little close to the vest," Shoop said. "We did want him to get more involved early."
Gage's big catch on the first series moved the ball to the Cardinals' 2 and set up the Bears' first first-quarter touchdown in 12 games. It came on a 2-yard rollout pass to Marty Booker on which Stewart had the option to run or throw.
Booker, who had five catches for 44 yards, enjoyed operating in an offense that also felt freer to him.
"All we've been asking for is an opportunity," Booker said. "We finally got that opportunity, and we stepped up."
As did a defense that has carried the team during its modest second-half resurgence. The Cardinals gained just 46 yards rushing and 197 overall as the opportunistic Bears created three fourth-quarter turnoversMcQuarters' interception, a fumble recovery by end Michael Haynes and an interception by cornerback Jerry Azumah.
"Up front, we dominated the whole game," linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "We just put it all together."
The Bears had waited four months for four quarters like this.
"I think it was the whole shebang," Stewart said.