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Hester's punt return rescues Bears

Oct 17, 2006 - 4:32 AM GLENDALE, Arizona (Ticker) -- The Chicago Bears showed why their defense is drawing comparisons to the 1985 squad that went on to win the Super Bowl.

Manhandled and outplayed throughout, the Bears used two second-half defensive touchdowns and Devin Hester's 82-yard punt return with 2:58 to play to pull off an improbable 24-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

Mark Brown and Charles Tillman each returned a fumble for a touchdown as the Bears averted the stunning upset and became the first NFL team to reach 6-0, although the manner in which they won should quiet talks about their chances of going unbeaten on the season.

"I am still a little lightheaded from what I just saw," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "When you are a good football team you have to go through games like that. We are 6-0. We are excited about that. We know we made a lot of mistakes, we will correct those. We are going to enjoy this one because they don't come around very often like this."

Rookie quarterback Matt Leinart, making his second consecutive career start, moved the Cardinals downfield and in position to go ahead, but Neil Rackers missed left on a 40-yard field goal attempt with 53 seconds remaining.

"I guess I am not in a groove and I am not hitting the ball real clean," said Rackers, who missed a game-winning 51-yard attempt last week against Kansas City. "Today I was ready to hit but unfortunately I hit the ground first. I felt extremely sick to my stomach for my teammates and coaches because we deserved to win the game."

Chicago entered the game having outscored its opponents by 120 points while allowing a league-low 36. But the Bears managed just nine first downs, including two in a wretched first half in which their eight possessions resulted in four turnovers and four three-and-out series.

They were just bad enough to make history, becoming the first NFL team to ever rally from a 20-point deficit without scoring an offensive touchdown.

The Cardinals (1-5) tumbled to their fifth consecutive defeat despite holding a two-to-one edge in time of possession and blowing a 20-0 halftime lead. They are the only team in NFL history to lose back-to-back games after leading 14-0.

"Somehow we need to learn how to finish games," Leinart said. "We played awesome against the No. 1-ranked team but somehow we always continue to hurt ourselves. There is no one to blame but ourselves. These losses are a team effort."

Arizona's meltdown had a ripple effect on coach Dennis Green, who went on a tirade during his postgame news conference.

"The Bears are who we thought they were. That is why we took the (darn) field," Green said. "If you want to crown them, crown their (butt). They are who we thought they were and we let them off the hook."

Leinart played like a season veteran in the first half, while Bears QB Rex Grossman looked like a frazzled rookie against a ferocious Cardinals defense, which intercepted him four times and recovered both of his fumbles. Indeed, the Bears became the first NFL team in seven years to win despite committing six turnovers.

Leinart finished 24-for-42 for 232 yards and two touchdowns, including first-quarter scoring passes to Bryant Johnson and Anquan Boldin.

Grossman was a dismal 14-for-37 for 148 yards.

"I have never played so bad and won a game like that. It was unbelievable," Grossman said. "Their defense played really well and I tried to force some balls. For some reason we were suppose to win that game. Everything went our way when it needed to."

Arizona maintained a 20-point lead, 23-3, in the waning moments of the third quarter, before Chicago rallied behind its vaunted defense.

Bears defensive end Mark Anderson hammered Leinart from behind, forcing a fumble that Brown scooped up at the 3 and carried into the end zone to cut the deficit to 23-10 with two seconds left in the period.

Still, history was against the Bears, who had lost their last 10 games when trailing after three quarters.

With the Cardinals trying to run down the clock, linebacker Brian Urlacher jarred the ball loose from running back Edgerrin James, and Tillman returned the fumble 40 yards to cut it to 23-17 with exactly 5:00 left.

"We just made plays when we had to," Urlacher said. "I have never been in a game like that before. We made a lot of plays in the second half. Defensively, our guys stepped up when we had to."

The Cardinals could manage just one first down before having to punt the ball back to the Bears. Hester, a rookie from Miami, brought it back with a dazzling run for his second TD of the season, tying a team record set by Dennis McKinnon in 1987.

"Everybody blocked," Hester said. "All my teammates said we needed a big play and it was the right time. The hole opened up and I hit it as hard as I could. I gave the punter one move that allowed me to get to the end zone."

James rushed 36 times but managed just 55 yards. The Bears limited him to zero yards and the costly fumble on his last nine carries.

Leinart also was slowed considerably in the second half. He methodically carved up the Bears' defense on his first possession of the game, moving the Cardinals 77 yards in 12 plays and connecting with Johnson on an 11-yard TD pass with 7:06 remaining in the opening period.

Leinart went 5-for-5 for 46 yards on the drive as the Bears trailed for just the second time this season.

The Cardinals doubled the lead in the final minute of the period. Three plays after Aaron Francisco's interception of Grossman, Leinart hit Boldin with a 26-yard TD pass and a 14-0 lead with 54 seconds left.

Rackers converted a pair of field goals in the second quarter, a 41-yarder and a 28-yarder that closed out the half and gave the Cardinals a stunning 20-0 lead.

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