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Bears Find a Feathered Friend

Times Staff Writer

Down by a point to the mighty Chicago Bears, the Arizona Cardinals on Monday were looking to pull off one of the greatest upsets in franchise history.

There were just less than three minutes remaining, and comeback-minded quarterback Matt Leinart was about to direct the final drive. Moments before he ran onto the field, the rookie got some words of encouragement from the quarterback he replaced.

“It’s what you do!” Kurt Warner yelled to him. “It’s what you do!”

As Leinart is learning, however, this is what the Cardinals do:

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With an epic game hanging in the balance, and a downtrodden franchise teetering on the verge of respectability, kicker Neil Rackers shanked a 40-yard field-goal attempt with 47 seconds remaining and let undefeated Chicago escape with a 24-23 victory.

“I’m still a little lightheaded from what I just saw,” Chicago Coach Lovie Smith said.

In his postgame news conference, Arizona Coach Dennis Green erupted in anger at an innocuous question about the Bears. He fumed, cursed and pounded his fist on the lectern.

“The Bears are who we thought they were,” he growled. “That’s why we took the damn field. If you want to crown them, just crown their.... They are who we thought they were and we let them off the hook.”

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The only thing more shocking than the budding upset was the fact the Bears came back, overcoming a 20-point deficit with three touchdowns in the final 15:02.

Chicago’s powerhouse offense was responsible for exactly zero of those touchdowns. Instead, they came on fumble returns by defensive backs Mike Brown and Charles Tillman, and a game-winning 83-yard punt return by rookie Devin Hester.

That stunned the sellout crowd at University of Phoenix Stadium, which had watched the Cardinals dominate the first half and make Bears quarterback Rex Grossman -- and not Leinart -- look like a wobbly-legged rookie. Grossman, among the league’s top-rated quarterbacks, accounted for four turnovers in the first half: two interceptions and two fumbles.

“I’ve never played so bad and won a game like that,” said Grossman, whose 6-0 team came into the game having outscored opponents, 156-36. “We’ve got a bye week to talk about how bad I played.”

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Leinart, meanwhile, was poised beyond his years. Making his second career start, he completed 24 of 42 passes for 232 yards with two touchdowns. On the final drive, he moved the Cardinals from their 38 to the Chicago 23, setting up Rackers’ attempt.

“Leinart was pretty much on all night,” Bears defensive end Alex Brown said. “He got them in position; that’s the most he could do. He can’t kick -- fortunately for us.”

Neither could Rackers, who bore no resemblance to the kicker who earned All-Pro honors last season.

“I’ve let my teammates down twice,” said Rackers, who last week missed a 51-yarder with two seconds remaining that would have forced overtime against Kansas City. “I’m sick for these guys. Our defense played a phenomenal game, and our offense put some points on the board. We deserved to win, and it was my job to get it done. And I didn’t.”

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But the Bears did, applying the defensive clamps in the second half and prying the ball loose from Leinart in the third quarter and running back Edgerrin James in the fourth. Both of those fumbles were returned for touchdowns.

“It was a turning point when everyone started saying, ‘Let’s believe,’ ” Chicago defensive tackle Tank Johnson said. “If you saw me in the fourth quarter, I was holding up four fingers and telling everybody that we have to finish.”

When the Cardinals (1-5) needed to run the ball and run time off the clock, Chicago’s defense wouldn’t budge. James was limited to 55 yards in 36 carries, a paltry 1.5-yard average. Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher, who said he went essentially unblocked in the second half, finished with 19 tackles, three quarterback hurries, two passes defensed and a forced fumble.

“You can call it luck, you can call it what you want,” Urlacher said of the victory. “We expected to win.”

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As for Green and his Cardinals, they’re left with the wispy vapors of what might have been. It was their third consecutive close loss.

“We’ve got practice on Wednesday and we’re going to have to all find within ourselves to do that,” he said. “I don’t have any words of wisdom, I guarantee you that.”

sam.farmer@latimes.com


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