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Bears need help from Packers after beating Arizona

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Bears need help from Packers after beating Arizona

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) Now the Chicago Bears are in the odd position of cheering on the Green Bay Packers, their age-old nemesis.

The Bears kept their playoff hopes alive by beating the Arizona Cardinals 28-13 on Sunday. To earn a wild-card spot, they need to win at Detroit in their regular-season finale and have the Packers beat the Minnesota Vikings.

`` (The Packers) put up 55 points today,'' Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler said, ``so hopefully (Aaron) Rodgers can put on another show next week.''

After losing five of six, the Bears (9-6) lost control of their playoff fate and need some help.

First, though, they had to beat the punchless Cardinals, and they did it with a defense that returned to the opportunistic ways that had helped the team race to a 7-1 start to the season.

Charles Tillman returned an interception 10 yards for a score and Zack Bowman returned a fumble 1 yard for another TD.

``It was the third pick Tillman has brought back for a touchdown this season and the eighth overall by Chicago, one shy of the NFL record. Julius Peppers had three of the Bears' four sacks.

``Defensively we asked them to take over and play the way they have been capable of doing,'' Chicago coach Lovie Smith said. ``Of course, how we played early, taking the ball away specifically, is what I am talking about. It was an added bonus getting a couple of scores. ``

A gigantic contingent of Bears fans cheered on their team.

``The Chicago fan support was amazing out there,'' Tillman said. ``It felt like a home game.''

Brandon Marshall caught six passes for 68 yards and a TD, breaking the Bears' franchise record for yards receiving in a season in the process. But, especially after calling out his team to show accountability, Marshall was highly critical of his performance.

``I stunk the field up,'' he said. ``Throwing around that word accountability, I can't do that, especially in this situation. For the defense to step up and other guys in offense to step up, that says a lot. I am proud that guys were able to make big plays, huge plays. Now we need to go out next weekend and control what we can control.''

Chicago snapped a three-game losing streak and won for just the second time in seven tries. The Cardinals (5-10) lost for the 10th time in 11 games.

``I can't even state how big this is. It is either win or you are done,'' Peppers said. ``We can't control what happens next week with other teams, but if we don't win today, we don't have a shot.''

Matt Forte gained 88 yards in 12 carries, including a 4-yard TD run for Chicago before aggravating a right ankle injury and leaving early in the second half.

Cutler completed just one of his first 11 passes, then went 5 of 5 on a touchdown drive in the final minutes of the first half. He finished 12 of 26 for 146 yards and a touchdown.

The Cardinals, with the NFL's worst offense, continued to search for someone to move the ball.

After he threw the interception to Tillman that put Chicago up 28-6 on Arizona's first offensive series after halftime, rookie Ryan Lindley was benched in favor of Brian Hoyer, claimed off waivers from Pittsburgh 13 days earlier.

``It's obviously not ideal, but football is football,''' said Hoyer, who spent three seasons as a backup in New England. ``You just want to go out and play the best you can and definitely improve off of this and just try to make the most of the opportunity.''

Hoyer completed 11 of 19 passes for 105 yards and one interception. Kelvin Hayden picked off his pass late in the game and returned it 39 yards to the Arizona 10.

But Adrian Wilson, the 12-year NFL veteran who might have been playing his last home game for the Cardinals, blocked Olindo Mare's 20-yard field goal try and Justin Bethel returned it 82 yards with 1:46 to play for the Cardinals' lone TD.

Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald caught eight passes for 111 yards, just his second 100-yard receiving game of the season. The first was in Week 3 against Philadelphia when the Cardinals were headed to a 4-0 start.

``It's been a long season, man,'' Fitzgerald said. ``Whenever I can make a play and make an impact, I try to do it. Today some things opened up. We were able to make some plays. But it didn't equate to a win, so it's all for nothing.''

Chicago pinned the Cardinals deep and, on second-and-11 from the 3, Beanie Wells' right knee gave way and he dropped the ball as he went backside first to the ground. Bowman grabbed it and skidded over the goal line for the first touchdown for the Bears' defense since Nov. 4.

Jay Feely's 49-yard field goal cut it to 7-3.

But Forte rambled 36 yards on the final play of the first quarter and Cutler threw 30 yards to Marshall to the Arizona 4 - the quarterback's first completion of the game in seven throws. Forte carried it in from there and Chicago led 14-3.

Chicago gave Arizona another chance when Dave Zastudil's punt careened off the Bears' D.J. Moore. The Cardinals recovered at the 36, leading to Feely's 35-yard field goal that cut the lead to 14-6.

With no timeouts and after completing just one of his first 11 passes, Cutler went 5-for-5, capped by an 11-yarder to a wide-open Marshall with 19 seconds left in the half.

``We were really struggling and got into a two-minute situation and guys were still working to get open,'' Cutler said. ``They made some great catches for me. It wasn't the best game. It wasn't the prettiest game, but we got done what we needed to get done.''

NOTES: The record for interceptions returned for TDs is nine by San Diego in 1961. ... Cardinals have not thrown a TD pass in six games. In last five games, Arizona has thrown 12 interceptions, four returned for TDs. ... Zastudil set the NFL season record with 44 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line, for the second week in a row a franchise record six of them against the Bears. ... Chicago S Chris Conti left the game in the first half with a hamstring injury.

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Follow Bob Baum at www.twitter.com/Thebaumerphx

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Bradley Beal not buying into off-court drama: 'All I do is come in here and work'

Bradley Beal not buying into off-court drama: 'All I do is come in here and work'

WASHINGTON -- Bradley Beal held court with reporters following Monday’s practice and hours after a report emerged on ESPN about the sliding Wizards are perhaps open for trade discussions involving all their players. Washington fell to 5-11 Sunday after an “embarrassing” loss. The team hoped by now the skid would stop. It hasn’t.
Neither would the use of a power tool near the Wizards practice court where Beal tried answering questions about the report and offering explanations for this shocking season. With rumors swirling – including one about a highly emotional practice - and highly caffeinated opinions everywhere, a significant question is how the Wizards handle such buzz.

“I’m not going to sit here and say I’m mad or frustrated or angry by it,” Beal said of the report. “All I can do is control what I can control, and that’s totally out of my control. I’ll allow [Wizards team president] Ernie [Grunfeld] and my agent [Mark Bartelstein] to deal with that. All I do is come in here and work, work my tail off every day and make sure we’re better and try to win ball games.”

Beal continued, as did the maintenance work.

“I mean, I’m not going to be naïve to it, you know,” Beal said of the report. “I have a phone just like everybody else does. There were rumors weeks ago. Then, I didn’t buy into them. Now, I’m still not going to buy into them because if that’s my main priority and focus then I’m going to be messed up on the floor.”

On cue, the power tool erupted. Beal, nodding in the direction of the worker joked, “I can’t control him.”

Opponents have largely controlled Washington, which ranks 29th in scoring defense. The Wizards entered this season something of an all-or-nothing team. There were reasons for optimism, namely Beal and fellow All-Star guard John Wall along with improved depth. This bunch also drew numerous skeptics following a frustrating 2017-18 campaign where team chemistry concerns mushroomed.

Experience from other slow starts since he joined Washington in 2012 helps Beal navigate such rough waters. There was a difference this time, an evident change in outlook provided by his son. “A different type of dribbling,” Beal told NBC Sports Washington in Orlando earlier this month.

“[He] makes me realize basketball isn’t my life. I’ll drop basketball right now to take care of my son. That’s a no-brainer. It’s definitely put a lot of things into perspective for me.”

Beal, 25, led Washington in scoring last season while playing all 82 regular season games for the first time in his career. His work led to more national recognition, eyes opening around the league. New reality kicked in from all angles with the family’s new arrival.

“I think the biggest thing for me is embracing. Embracing who I am as a player. The position I’m in. The years I’ve put in. Being an All-Star. Being one of the best [players] and being a father now. Just embracing what all of that entails, good and bad,” Beal said.

The bad is now a daily headline. Monday it was the possibility of a team teardown. Most often, what’s wrong with the Wizards. Beal is here for now and perhaps the entire length of his career, though he grasps professional basketball is a business. Worlds may change overnight. Beal is trying to figure out how to fix things immediately.

Monday Beal cited past Wizards teams that stopped responding during slides. “You know what that feels like when you just show up every day and go through the motions. We don’t have that [now],” he said. What they have isn’t attitudinally enough even compared to last season’s frustrations.

“Last year we kind of had a little more sense of urgency,” Beal told NBC Sports Washington in Orlando. “This year we’re a little too lax. We need to be more pissed off.”

Beal’s annoyance popped publically following a 116-112 loss at Sacramento on Oct. 26 by saying players on the court were letting personal “agendas” take over. The take wasn’t surprising, but Beal told NBC Sports Washington he wishes he could have skipped airing grievances through the media. 

The real takeaway from that moment was the recognition of a problem just five games into the season. The fix remains elusive. Beal leads Washington in scoring (21.5) and handles his business often, but like others at times can get caught up with watching on defense and making bad choices when the offense stagnates.

Finding solutions isn’t up to Beal alone yet he’s one of the clear team leaders. Part of Beal’s dilemma: How to lead when you’re not the only influential voice in the locker room.

“I’ve been struggling with that,” Beal told NBC Sports Washington in Orlando. “It’s not about scoring points. … It’s like, OK, what more can I do to help us win? What am I not doing enough of? I don’t even point at my teammates necessarily first even if I’ve had a great game. It’s like what could I have done more? If that’s what I need to do than I have to do it.

“It is a little confusing. I’m still trying to figure it out, honestly. … It’s not just one thing. The biggest problem if you want to call it a problem is how do you turn around? Win. How do you win? You defend, you rebound, you play your style of basketball. I put a lot of that on my shoulders. If there’s more I can do I’m going to go do it.
It’s definitely something I’m in the process of figuring it out.”

That process is ongoing. The Wizards enter Thanksgiving week in unwanted territory. The new report of potential trades adds another element to the potentially combustible scene.

Beal understands the core group that reached the playoffs in four of the past five seasons might be broken up. He knows there’s little he can do other than play his game, practice with passion and, when home, raise his son with joy. The drama and the outside noise isn’t for him.

“All the behind the scenes stuff, I don’t like worrying about it,” Beal said Monday. “I don’t like consuming my energy with it because basketball is my muse. This is my place of peace, my happy place. If that’s going to be taken away from me, then I’ll be totally messed up. I can’t allow rumors and the possibility of [changes] affect what I do on the floor. At the end of the day, it is a business. [Ernie] has a job. He’s protecting himself. He’s protecting the organization. Nobody can be mad at that.”

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Stand pat or hunt for replacements at second base?

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Stand pat or hunt for replacements at second base?

Mike Rizzo is wading through the offseason with two separate to-do lists. One covers everything Bryce Harper and the other three distinct gaps in his roster: catcher, second base and the third spot in the starting rotation.

The Harper list will ultimately be decided by ownership. Rizzo wants him back. It’s up to the Lerner family how much they are willing to spend on a return. They were the decision-makers on Max Scherzer’s contract. They will again be so with Harper, weighing many of the same things he will, such as legacy, winning and off-the-field futures.

The other list is more mundane. However, it may be more important. The Nationals have multiple quality solutions if Harper signs elsewhere. And no matter where he ends up, they needed to work on the secondary list. Monday, the Nationals reportedly agreed to a two-year deal with catcher Kurt Suzuki, making headway there. So, let’s first take a look at second base before checking on the third rotation spot later in the week:

The in-house option: Split time between Wilmer Difo and Howie Kendrick

Rizzo told reporters at the general manager meetings he felt good about using the above combination to take care of second base next season. Kendrick would, theoretically, provide a steady bat. Difo would, theoretically, provide athleticism the lineup needs and solid defense at a spot where it did not exist the last three seasons with Daniel Murphy.

The platoon line appears clean: Kendrick would be a right-handed option, Difo, though a switch-hitter, a left-handed choice since he is better against right-handed pitching. Difo could also carry more of the load early in the season assuming the Nationals slow play Kendrick in his age-36 season when coming back from an Achilles tendon tear. Nationals medical staff informed Kendrick he would be “back to normal” if he followed the post-surgery protocols.

“And that’s very refreshing to hear something like that, especially if you have an injury of this caliber,” Kendrick told me in September. “Years ago, it might not have been the same. But now with the advancement of technology and the way they do surgery I feel really confident I’ll be back to normal and playing. Just the process, I’ve got to stick with the process and trust it. “Mentally, I really don’t have a problem with it. I know it just takes time because I’ve had injuries before. So, it’s like, all right, just follow the protocol and I’ll be where I need to be when it’s time.”

Kendrick is doing most of his rehabilitation work at Banner Health in Tempe, Arizona. The facility is just down the road from his house. It also allows him to work with physical therapist Keith Kocher, who Kendrick knows from his time with the Los Angeles Angels. Kocher also knows Nationals director of athletic training Paul Lessard and athletic trainer Greg Barajas. Barajas previously worked for Kocher.

Difo, entering his age-27 season, is nearing the end of the line with the organization. He had just a .649 OPS last season in 408 at-bats. There’s little to indicate an offensive uptick is forthcoming. Both he and Kendrick, who will become a free agent, are likely gone after this season.

Should the Nationals choose this platoon path, they would have to live with Difo’s lack of offense and occasional in-field brain freezes. Davey Martinez likes to hit him ninth when he plays, bumping the pitcher in front of him. He would like Difo to calm his swing and have a more measured approach at the plate.

Relying on Kendrick following the injury is a gamble. But, this pair is an option if the organization believes everything else is in place. A team .723 OPS at the position would qualify for middle of the National League pack last season. Kendrick and Difo combine for a .703 career OPS.

The free agent choices: Old, but reliable

Two of the six Gold Glove finalists at second base in 2018 are on the market. Jed Lowrie, who reinvented his offensive effectiveness during the last two seasons, and DJ LeMahieu, who won his third Gold Glove this year.

LeMahieu is the top option for the Nationals if they want to make a hefty investment. He’s 30 years old, a two-time All-Star, the league’s best defender at the position and the 2016 National League batting champion (hello, Coors Field: .391 at home and .303 on the road that season).

What’s interesting is his career OPS-plus, which is adjusted for a hitter’s park, is well below that of Kendrick. Kendrick has a 107 career OPS-plus, LeMahieu 92. And Kendrick didn’t earn the gap only earlier in his career. He put together a 118 OPS-plus in 2017 when being used properly by both the Phillies and Nationals in a reduced role. However, LeMahieu would be a significant fielding upgrade for a team that needs to be better at cutting 90 feet here, 90 feet there from the opposition.

Lowrie is going into his age-35 season. He delivered two of the top seasons of his career in the last two years. Both earned a 120 OPS-plus. He’s shown more power and more patience at the plate. The question is how much to pay him for those last two seasons, the usual paying-for-past-performance risk. The significant dips in Lowrie’s average and slugging percentage following the All-Star break last season can be viewed as red flags.

Asdrubal Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Brian Dozier and Murphy are also among the lot available. None are getting younger.

The trade options: Limited.

To reiterate: Limited. First, the Nationals’ assets have dwindled in recent years. Second, Carter Kieboom could be ready to play second in 2019 if he is still in the organization. Third, there’s no reason to burn an asset to fill this spot now.

A recommended path

Signing Suzuki will help patch catcher. Another move is likely coming there. Perhaps a second low-cost veteran. Remember, the Nationals allotted roughly $11 million to the position last season. Suzuki will cost half that, which leaves room for further investment without increasing the year-over-year payroll in regards to the Competitive Balance Tax. The salary cost stays the same, the tax threshold rises, you find savings at that spot.

Resolving the catcher position, at least in part, delivers second base as one of the few remaining uncertain spots on the roster. Which in turn provides the Nationals wiggle room when making a decision this offseason. So, the recommendation is to stick and wait. Shoring up this spot could be a move for July or even August at a much lower cost. In the interim, the Difo-Kendrick platoon is surrounded by enough current talent to hover near league average without being a significant hole.

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