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Cards, Bears Try To Pick A Winner

Posted Dec 22, 2012

Top two teams in NFL in interceptions meet Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium

Cornerback Greg Toler leaps for his interception last week against Detroit. Toler returned it 102 yards for a touchdown.

It’s been 65 years but the Cardinals and Bears are at it again.

In 1947, a year after the Chicago Bears won the NFL championship, the Chicago Cardinals brought a title crosstown. They haven’t competed against each other for much else since, until this year.

With hopes of a postseason berth still sitting on Santa’s wish list, the Cardinals and Bears have been engaging in their own battle: Who can finish the season with the most interceptions?

The Cardinals lead the NFL with 22 picks and the Bears are one behind heading into Sunday’s game at University of Phoenix Stadium. In the case of both teams, the defenses have provided much-needed support for offenses that have struggled to produce, in part because of injury-riddled offensive lines.

And then there’s the individual competition between Patrick Peterson and Bears cornerback Tim Jennings, who is questionable for Sunday after missing two games with a dislocated right shoulder. Jennings leads the NFL with eight interceptions and Peterson is tied for second with seven.

With the Cardinals looking to stretch their recent success into a winning streak and the Bears’ itching to win to give themselves a shot at the playoffs, the interception duel has been overshadowed.

“They’re up there, we’re up there,” defensive coordinator Ray Horton said. “It’s probably a little bit of a rivalry between Tim Jennings and Patrick Peterson as far as leading the league in interceptions. It’s a sidebar, yeah.”

But it could easily become the story of the game for two offenses that have benefitted from the prime field position yielded from interceptions. Or, like the Cardinals did last game with two picks that were returned for touchdowns, they can put points on the board in a matter of moments.

Both of the Cardinals’ picks returned for scores this season came last week. Greg Toler’s 102-yard interception return and Rashad Johnson’s 53-yarder provided a cushion for the Cardinals in their 38-10 rout of the Lions. However, most of the Bears’ seven interceptions returned for touchdowns have turned a game in their favor. Two Bears, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman, have returned both their interceptions for touchdowns this season.

“They have a knack for it,” wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “We have to be very careful not only just throwing the ball, but we have to be careful when we have the ball in our hands.”

Both teams have watched opponents’ offenses suffer enough this year to learn how to avoid getting picked off. The key for the Cardinals, however, may come on the Bears’ first offensive possession.

The Cards make it a priority to hit the opposing quarterback on the first drive, Horton said. And Bears quarterback Jay Cutler noticed.

“Anytime you pressure a quarterback and you get to the quarterback and you make his clock speed up and think he’s got to get rid of the ball quicker than he wants to, you’re going to have a chance for some turnovers,” Cutler said. “And that’s what they do, bring pressure.”

Besides being ranked first and second in individual and team interceptions, the Cards and Bears also neighbors atop the Troy Aikman defense rankings, which Bears coach Lovie Smith said his team uses to gauge its standing. According to Aikman’s ratings, the Bears have the best defense in the NFL followed by the Cardinals.

Yet the Cardinals and Bears have risen to the top of the interception rankings because of a common mindset. When Horton arrived before last season, he stressed the importance of interceptions. Smith, despite having a longer tenure than Horton, has done the same.

“I think you have to put a premium on it and just make it important to your team and show how the importance of it on how it can lead to wins,” Smith said.

The Cardinals have played just one team ranked in the Top 6 of interceptions before this weekend and they bested the Falcons, who have 18, 5 picks to none.

The Cardinals have read about the Bears having as good of a pass defense as them, but coach Ken Whisenhunt wants more. He wants the offense, which doesn’t face the first-team defense in practice, to understand just how good the Bears can be.

He’s talked about it throughout practice this week and plans on emphasizing it again during Saturday’s walk through and even more at their meetings later that night.

“I think it’s something that you got to be certainly aware of when you play this team,” Whisenhunt said. “But still, it can happen, just like our guys have been good about getting the ball, too.

“I think the biggest thing you can do is not only work on it but talk about it. It’s got to be something you’re aware of in the front of your mind.”


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