With a first round bye in this year’s playoffs within grasp, the Bears outlasted a good Jets team on Sunday to advance to 11-4 on the season.
The Bears jumped out to an early lead when they received the opening kickoff and took the ball 47 yards down the field before Robbie Gould converted a 37-yard field goal.
On the Jets’ first possession, Tim Jennings forced Santonio Holmes to fumble at the conclusion of a three-yard end around and Chris Harris recovered. Four plays later, Matt Forte broke free for a 22-yard touchdown and the Bears were up, 10-0.
Good teams won’t be held down for long and the Jets fought back by scoring 21 unanswered points. The first touchdown came on a 3-yard run by Shonn Greene. Dwight Lowery intercepted Jay Cutler on the next possession and took it for a touchdown. And on the Jets’ following series, LaDainian Tomlinson capped off a short drive with a 3-yard score.
The Bears are a good team, too, so they weren’t held down for long, either. On their next possession after the Tomlinson touchdown, Cutler drove the Bears 64 yards and scored on a 2-yard scramble to draw within 21-17.
The Jets ran a successful three-minute drill at the end of the half and took a 24-17 lead into halftime following a Nick Folk field goal.
On the first possession of the second half, the Jets went three and out but elected to run a fake punt on fourth down. Rashied Davis made a nice play on the ball and the Bears took over on the Jets’ 40-yard line. Cutler went deep on the first play and connected with Johnny Knox for a 40-yard touchdown to tie the game at 24.
For some unknown reason, Jets punter Steve Weatherford, who had kicked away from Devin Hester in the first half and is one of the most accurate punters in the league, punted right to Hester after the Jets went three and out yet again. Hester returned the punt 38 yards to the Jets’ 32-yard line and three plays later Cutler connected with him for a 25-yard touchdown and a 31-24 lead.
The Jets answered back with a 23-yard touchdown pass from Mark Sanchez to Holmes, and that was followed by yet another touchdown pass from Cutler to Knox. The Bears took a 38-31 lead into the fourth quarter before the Jets drew within four points following another Folk field goal.
After all the scoring in the third quarter, Folk’s three points with 14:52 left in the game were the only points scored in the fourth quarter as the Bears’ defense held on for the victory. Harris intercepted Sanchez on the Jets’ final drive of the game to seal the win.
Call him a game manager or someone who plays within the offense, but Cutler continues to get the job done. Aside from the Patriots game in which the entire team struggled, Cutler has done a great job leading the Bears since the bye week. Against the Jets, he completed just 13 passes of only 25 attempts, but recorded 215 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.
Forte is another player who has benefited since the bye week. He rushed for 113 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries. He also caught four passes for 56 yards. Forte is now averaging 4.4 yards per carry on the season, a major credit to the improvement of the offensive line.
Knox is inching closer to the 1,000-receiving-yard mark, which would make him the first Bears receiver to eclipse that mark since Marty Booker did it in 2002. Knox has 960 yards on 51 receptions for the season following his four-catch, 92 yards and two-touchdown performance. Hester caught three passes for 48 yards and a score and Earl Bennett and Greg Olsen each caught a pass.
The Bears recorded two takeaways on defense, although the fake punt that the Jets failed to execute amounted to a turnover also. Harris had a monster game, leading the team with 11 tackles, recovering a fumble, and securing that game-clinching interception. Charles Tillman and Brian Urlacher each had eight tackles and Anthony Adams and Jennings each had five tackles and a forced fumble. The Bears failed to record a sack on Sanchez, though, and Sanchez had too much time to throw for much of the game.
Special teams did a good job of containing the Jets’ explosive kick returners and not enough can be said about how much confidence Hester is exhibiting in his returns. Hester had one kickoff return for 40 yards and one punt return for 38 yards. That’s why you don’t kick to him if you’re an opposing kicker or punter.
The Bears find themselves in an interesting position at this point in the season. They are in control of the second seed of the playoffs and can secure that seed with an Eagles loss to the Vikings on Tuesday. The Bears can also secure the second seed and a first round bye with a victory over the Packers next week or an Eagles loss to the Cowboys.
The worst-case scenario, however, would be a loss to the Packers at Lambeau Field next week and then having to face the Packers in the first round of the playoffs. Sure, that game would be fun and entertaining with a lot of pride on the line, but can you imagine back-to-back losses to the Packers to close the season? We wouldn’t hear the end of it.
The Bears also have a small chance at earning the first seed in the playoffs, but the Falcons would have to lose tonight to the Saints and next week to the 2-13 Panthers, and that’s a long shot. At this point, we just have to hope the Bears can knock off the Packers next week and stay healthy for the playoffs.