In the desert, some good stuff and a lot of bad facing Bears

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In the desert, some good stuff and a lot of bad facing Bears

First the bad news (and theres a lot of it):

A team that spiraled down a nine-game losing streak is usually a doormat. If the Bears regard the Arizona Cardinals as such, they will spend Sunday night explaining a sixth loss in the last seven games.

Arizona bumbled away a 4-0 start because of problems on offense, not defense. Kind of like the Bears. The Cardinals are not in the Bears class at stopping points but they are 11th in scoring defense (21.6 per game). And the Bears have only managed to score that number in one of the past six games, which goes a very long way toward explaining why they lost the other five.

Of some significance possibly is that the Cardinals play a 3-4 defense, and the Bears have scored six (Houston), seven (San Francisco) and 13 (Green Bay) points in their last three games against that scheme.

They show a lot of different looks, theyre not afraid to blitz you and have talented guys in the secondary and linebackers, quarterback Jay Cutler said. They create turnovers, theyre really good on third down so weve got our hands full.

More bad stuff

Some specifics bode ill, or at least challenging, for the Bears.

The offense, what there has been of it, has run through Brandon Marshall. The Packers (twice) and 49ers in particular gave him problems and the Bears lost all three games in dismal offensive performances.

Arizona has an elite cornerback in Patrick Peterson, whose matchup with Marshall rates on the interest scale with Charles Tillman vs. Calvin Johnson.

I got a text message from my college coach that also coached at LSU when he was there and he said, This is the best athlete youre going to go against this year, Marshall said. Ive got my hands full this week. I know hell follow me around a little bit.

I heard some comments he made a week or two ago about how hes playing the best at the position. I agree with him. Watching film now, he really is backing it up. Unfortunately their record doesnt show that. That kind of put a damper on his play right now but hes playing at a high level. This guy is going to be another Pro Bowler.

A little more bad stuff

Defensive end Calais Campbell is 6-8, 300 pounds and has 4.5 sacks, and he likely will be facing off against struggling Gabe Carimi. The second-year right tackle lost his job over failures to block a speed rusher (San Franciscos Aldon Smith); the hope is that other end of the size spectrum is a better matchup.

JMarcus Webb has the task of staving off three-time Pro Bowl selection Darnell Dockett on the other side. Not a good matchup for the Bears.

But the rush nightmare for the Bears is inside linebacker Daryl Washington, who leads the Cardinals with both 120 tackles and 9.5 sacks. Bears' guard play has been spotty at best and rookie James Brown played so badly against Green Bay that he was benched in-game.

We have some guys in place that we think were going to go with, said offensive coordinator Mike Tice. Theyre from the group of guys that played in the game the other days. So well have five guys out there.

The Cardinals, fourth in takeaways with 32 (vs. the Bears 37) have intercepted 13 passes in the last five games, including the three that doomed Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions. They rank No. 1 in the NFL in interception percentage and fourth in sacks per pass play, meaning they are precisely what a shaky Bears offensive line and quarterback need with playoff hopes hanging by a thread of a thread.

The last two Bears losses and the one to Houston arguably turned on Cutler interceptions, which has helped quell any ripple of Cutler-for-MVP sentiment that appeared briefly when the Bears were 7-1.

For purposes of comparison, the Bears defense has held opposing quarterbacks to a combined passer rating of 71.4. That is very good.

The Cardinals have held quarterbacks to a combined 68.0. That is even better.

Now, a little good stuff

But for all that the Cardinals have done against the pass, they rank 28th in rushing yards allowed per game and 19th in yards per carry. In six of the losses in the nine-game swoon, opponents rushed for 165 or more yards.

The problem is that the Bears have been as inept running the ball as they have throwing it. They have scored a rushing touchdown (two) in only one of the last six games and the guy who scored those two Michael Bush went on injured reserve this week with a rib injury.

The Detroit Lions lost to the Cardinals last week when they rushed for only 84 yards. The Bears lost to Green Bay and San Francisco with sub-85 rushing totals and the tipping point clearly will be the run game.

Were all searching right now, Tice acknowledged. Theres a lot of what-ifs, is-it-him? but thats the way it is when youve lost a number of games in the last six.

Kris Bryant ignites World Series nostalgia with Cubs' epic eighth-inning comeback

Kris Bryant ignites World Series nostalgia with Cubs' epic eighth-inning comeback

“Reminded me a lot of a play in the World Series.”

Kris Bryant wasn’t the only one with World Series nostalgia Saturday afternoon at the Friendly Confines. The tens of thousands of Cubs fans losing their minds over the North Siders’ eighth-inning comeback made that very clear.

Bryant, though, was the one who provided it, first driving in the game-tying run mere moments after the visiting St. Louis Cardinals smashed open a pitchers duel with back-to-back homers off Jon Lester in the top of the eighth. Bryant then got a head starts and came around all the way from first, scoring the game-winning run on a ball Anthony Rizzo dumped into the left-center field gap so perfectly he couldn’t have thrown it there any better.

Bryant slid in — feet first — beating the throw home from ex-teammate Dexter Fowler. Cue the hysteria at Clark and Addison.

“Me, honestly, I was just trying to go up the middle. I think that’s kind of where I’ve been struggling this year is with guys on base I want to do too much. Just seeing through the middle. Bat broke and flew, I don’t know where it went, but it flew somewhere. That was huge,” Bryant explained after the game.

“And then obviously with Rizz having a good at-bat off a tough lefty. I don't know if Dexter or Tommy Pham got a good read or if they were way back at the track, but right when he hit it I didn’t see them anywhere close to it so I thought there was a pretty good chance that I could score.”

Bryant’s very presence in the Cubs’ starting lineup was the headline before the game, the “freak of nature” returning from a jammed finger after missing only one game. So of course it was the reigning National League MVP who played the biggest role, flipping the script from his sick day by being right in the middle of the Cubs’ eighth-inning explosion. It was the eighth inning where the Cardinals staged their game-defining rally Friday.

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Manager Joe Maddon went as far as saying that perhaps only Bryant could have made the play he did, scoring from first base on what went down as a Rizzo double.

“KB being able to play was the difference in today’s game,” Maddon said. “A combination of the hit and his speed. I don’t think anybody else scores on that. Maybe Jason (Heyward), possibly. (Ian) Happ, possibly. But KB is such a good base runner. He had it in his head the moment the ball was hit, and all (third base coach Gary) Jones had to do was wave his arm. You can’t underestimate the importance of one person in the lineup.

“He’s a very bright base runner. He’s shown that from the beginning. … He demonstrated that early on, and for me when a young player demonstrates awareness on the bases, man, that’s a good baseball player.”

All that talent made Bryant last season’s Most Valuable Player and one of the most important figures in the curse-breaking World Series championship.

Bryant mentioned he thought Saturday’s game-winning trip from first to home conjured memories of a similar play in Game 7 of last fall’s World Series, when Bryant went first to home on Rizzo’s base hit off Andrew Miller in the fifth inning.

“Reminded me a lot of a play in the World Series off of Andrew Miller. It was a full count there, started early,” Bryant said. “Rizz hit it, you’ve got to give him a ton of credit, worked a great at-bat. But the head start really does help. It's something that I take pride in is my base running, surprising people. Hopefully I did that today.”

With Bryant back in the lineup Saturday, Kyle Hendricks’ return to the rotation coming Monday, a now 7-1 record since the All-Star break and a bunched-up NL Central that had four teams within three and a half games of each other entering Saturday’s action, it’s no wonder the World Series feeling is making its way back to the North Side.

All season long, fans and observers have been waiting for that switch to flip, and maybe it finally has.

The bats were thunderous on that six-game road trip out of the All-Star break, with 16 home runs helping the Cubs to back-to-back sweeps of the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves. Friday’s loss to the Cardinals provided plenty of evidence that the rest of the season might feature a knock-down, drag-out slugfest between the four NL Central contenders. All that was missing was a game that got Wrigleyville rocking.

“Probably one of our better wins of the year,” Bryant said.

That’s all without even mentioning the efforts of Lester, who was perfect until Adam Wainwright’s single in the top of the sixth. It was another stellar effort from a Cubs starting pitcher, and what was the team’s biggest problem during that sub-.500 first half — inconsistent starting pitching — certainly seems to be ironed out.

While the standings say it’s still going to be a brawl to the end with the Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cubs could be in a first-place tie by the end of Saturday night.

In other words, the race is on. And Bryant and the Cubs are clicking at the right time.

“It’s already Jaugust,” Maddon joked, inventing a new month out of thin air. “There’s no waiting around right now. Everybody feels the same way. We took advantage of the break, I believe. We came back with renewed energy. You don’t want to give up anything right now.”

After losing uncle, emotional Jon Lester pays tribute with Notre Dame rallying cry

After losing uncle, emotional Jon Lester pays tribute with Notre Dame rallying cry

Jon Lester wore PLACT on his hat Saturday and he made good on the Notre Dame rallying cry — Play Like a Champion Today — against the Cardinals.

Lester didn't attend college and doesn't cheer for Notre Dame, but in his postgame session, he fought through tears to tell reporters why he decided to put the Notre Dame nod on his hat:

"My family — I lost my uncle yesterday," Lester said. "For the Notre Dame fans, he went to Notre Dame, so it's Play Like a Champion Today. Just to let him know that I was thinking of him."

Lester worked through the grief and carried a perfect game into the sixth inning, retiring the first 17 Cardinals hitters in the game.

Lester wound up surrendering two homers in the eighth inning, but the Cubs offense rallied behind him with three runs in the bottom of the inning, giving their ace his seventh win of the season.

But Lester's teammates didn't even know the struggle he was going through.

"I didn't even know that, man," said Kris Bryant, who scored the winning run. "That's tough. Jonny, he won't ever show you any emotion. Something like that, to hear that, obviously it's terrible, but he's probably one of the best teammates I've ever been able to play with in my short time.

"You know what you're going to get with him every day. You know he's gonna be the same guy, the same competitor and I love that about him."