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Monday, October 29, 2012
Five Things We Learned: Bears-Panthers

By Jeff Dickerson

CHICAGO -- Here are five things we learned in the Chicago Bears' 23-22 victory over the Carolina Panthers at Soldier Field on Sunday:

1. Never count out the defense: Let's face it, the Bears defense did not look sharp at times. Whether it was Brandon LaFell racing down the middle of the field for a 62-yard gain, the Panthers converting 10-of-19 (53%) of their third down opportunities, missed tackles or Steve Smith simply being Steve Smith, this was not one of the Bears defense’s finer days. However, as usual, when the team needed a big play the defense was there to deliver, as Tim Jennings intercepted Cam Newton and ran it back for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. That marked the sixth defensive touchdown by the Bears this year, an absurd number for a season that's only seven games old. Even when the Bears aren't playing their best ball, the defense is still capable of making something happen.

Steve Smith
Tim Jennings did a solid job of containing Panthers star receiver Steve Smith on Sunday.
2. Jennings is going to the Pro Bowl: We kind of already suspected that Jennings might make his first Pro Bowl, but Sunday's two-interception performance put it over the top. Jennings has six picks over the first seven games after entering the season with seven lifetime interceptions. He also did an admirable job on Smith. There is no way to completely shut down Smith, who is still one of the game's great wideouts, but Jennings made him earn every one of his seven catches as the two squared off all over the field on Sunday. Jennings continues to make the Bears look like geniuses for re-signing him to a modest two-year contract in free agency, one of the best moves the organization made all offseason.

3. Jay Cutler can bring the Bears back: Maybe it was due to Cutler's sore ribs or the consistent pass rush the Panthers were able to generate up front, but the Bears quarterback was a little off for most of the game, much like the rest of his teammates. But Cutler completed six of seven passes on the Bears final drive to help set up Robbie Gould's game winning field goal. That was huge. Cutler has always played well when ahead or when sparked by the defense, but here was a chance for the quarterback to rally the team when the chips were down. To me, this signified another step in the maturing process of Cutler as a quarterback. Throw out the pedestrian 186 passing yards and 83.3 quarterback rating, this was one of Cutler's best games because when the team turned to him to win a game, he delivered.

4. Earl Bennett is the second best option at receiver with Alshon Jeffery out: Either Bennett is still hurt or the Bears have not used him enough the last two games. After Brandon Marshall, Bennett is by far the most trustworthy receiver on the roster and needs to be featured more in the offense. His back-to-back catches at the end of the third quarter gave the offense a little life for the first time since Matt Forte scored the game's first touchdown. There is nothing wrong with Marshall being the focal point of the passing attack every week, but Bennett has proven to be a reliable and professional second option. Throw him the ball. There is a role for Devin Hester in this offense, but it's not as the No. 2 wide receiver. Isn't that obvious by now?

5. There are no ugly wins in the NFL: The Bears have nothing to be ashamed of after squeaking out the victory against the Panthers. The NFL is a fluid league where team's fortunes can change on a dime, so every single win is important and should not be discounted. Sure, the Bears did not play very well and trailed late to a team that is now 1-6, but the mark of a good team is finding ways to win even when you're not at your best. Plus, Lovie Smith can now use this performance as motivation when his 6-1 Bears hit the road next week to face the Tennessee Titans. These are the kinds of games playoff-caliber teams need to win. The schedule is about to get a whole lot tougher in the coming weeks, so coming out on top in home games against teams the likes of Carolina are a must.