It’s not that Jay Cutler was so great upon his return after taking a week and two quarters off after a concussion. Still, the quarterback is better than anything else the Chicago Bears can field instead of him, and with the usual help of the best defense in the NFL, the losing streak ended and the playoffs are once again a very short distance away.
As we’ve said, Cutler didn’t have the greatest of games against the Minnesota Vikings: 23-31 passing for 188 yards, one touchdown, one interceptions and a 86.5 passer rating. Still better than Jason Campbaell, and it’s one of those instances when the numbers do lie a bit. Cutler’s greatest contribution was his influence, the confidence he cast and making the most of the short field the defense gave him an the rest of the offense again and again.
A big key in the win and for the rest of the season is going to be the protection. The Bears made some shifts in the offensive line, fearing Jared Allen and co. The tweaks worked: Cutler was sacked only once and was hurried only four more times on his 36 dropbacks, compared with 23% he and his offensive line were carrying going into the game. He released the ball quickly and accurately most of the time, bringing Brandon Marshall back to life.
Marshall finished with 12 receptions for 92 yards; A week after being targeted a season-low four times by Jason Campbell, Marshall matched a season-high with 17 targets against the Vikings, more than half of Cutler’s 31 pass attempts. Cutler was mostly about Marshall, but showed the big difference between him and his backup – his ability to find creases and opening very quickly, and the ability to deliever the ball in those small openings. He does takes unneccesary risks at times, but as long as the protection is working, Cutler’s style of passing is good for the Bears.
But the win was attributed to the style they love to see in Chicago: Smash on the run, smash on defense. They forced three turnovers, two of them by Cristian Ponder who threw an interception and fumbled the ball, like Adrian Peterson. Peterson had a good day on the ground (108 yards), but that was damage the Bears could live with. He wasn’t used on third and fourth down situations, while Ponder himself had his worst game of the season.
He finished with 22-43 for 159 yards, throwing a touchdown and an interception; a passer rating of 58.2 and a QBR of 10.3. Ponder has posted a QBR under 20.0 in 4 of his last 5 games after having no such games in the 1st 6 weeks of the season. Unlike the Vikings, the Bears’ ability on third down, mostly thanks to Michael Bush (60 yards, 2 touchdowns) kept them a step and two ahead of the Vikings all day long, converting 11-19 on 3rd down, including 5-of-6 on third/fourth-down attempts in short yardage (3 yards or less) to go.
After two burtal and physical losses to the 49ers and the Texans, the Bears are past the two teams they were probably fretting the most. The Bears are a physical team, with a defense that creates turnovers and points like no others. But their offensive line problems keep them a step behind the elite teams of the NFL, until now. If Cutler gets this kind of protection, the Bears have the kind of tools on both sides of the ball to be more than a regular season threat. Super Bowl isn’t a dirty word (actually two), as long as Cutler remains healthy.