Monday Morning Quarterback: Bears-Vikings (09.15.13)

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At certain points in the Bears’ 31-30 victory over the Vikings on Sunday, it felt a little like we were in the Bizarro World — for those of you familiar with the Seinfeld reference. For the laymen out there, I’ll put it in simpler terms. It seemed as if we were watching the reverse of Bears football in the past decade.

The Bears came out against an inferior Vikings opponent and dominated them on the stat sheet. Jay Cutler completed 13 of 19 passes for 154 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in the first half. The Bears were seemingly moving the ball at will and were shutting down the Vikings offense.

That kind of production should have warranted a lopsided scoreboard, right?

Well, it wasn’t to be.

The Vikings returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, they sacked Cutler and returned his fumble for a touchdown, and they intercepted Cutler in the end zone on first and goal on another series. And just like that, the dominating Bears were only up by a field goal at halftime.

Sound familiar? In the past, it has been the Bears’ opponent who would dominate in statistics but it would be the Bears’ special teams and defense that would keep them in the games. Something just wasn’t right about what was going on Sunday.

The second half, however, was a different story. The Bears legitimately found themselves in trouble by stalling on offense and getting gashed by the woeful Christian Ponder. The Vikings quarterback was showing nifty footwork by scrambling for big gains and moving the chains with both his legs and his noodle arm. Also, the effect of Peterson’s physical running style was wearing on the Bears’ defense and the running back was starting to pile up big yardage in the third quarter. It just wasn’t working in the Bears’ favor and for the first time all game — despite the close score in the first half — you began to think it was possible the Bears could lose to this inferior group of Vikings.

The beginning of the fourth quarter didn’t exactly inspire confidence that the Bears could come back and win the game when the first play was a Cutler interception on a pass intended for Brandon Marshall down the sideline. Minnesota followed that up with a 13-play drive that started from their own 12-yard-line and concluded with a Blair Walsh field goal that put the Vikings up, 27-24.

So how would the Bears respond after a turnover and a long Vikings drive that ate up the clock and gave them the lead?

With a Matt Forte fumble, of course.

Normally the optimist, I was all but ready to concede the loss to the Vikings when Forte had the ball ripped from his arms by defensive tackle Letroy Guion, and the Vikings’ offense — now suddenly potent — took the field in Bears territory with a 3-point lead and only six and a half minutes on the clock.

Once more, Ponder chewed up the Bears’ soft coverage and drove the Vikings down the short field, inching closer to the end zone. Fortunately, the Bears defense rose to the occasion and kept Peterson out of the end zone, forcing the Vikings to kick a field goal instead, keeping the score to a one-possession game.

Trailing by six points with 3:08 left on the clock, the momentum once again shifted for the Bears. As all good quarterbacks are supposed to do in crunch time, Cutler methodically led the Bears down the field on a 10-play drive, chewing up all but 10 seconds of the game clock. Cutler completed 7 of 9 passes (not including one spike) for 77 yards and capped off the drive with the game-winning 16-yard strike to tight end Martellus Bennett, his second touchdown catch of the game.

Game. Set. Match.

Once again, for the second week in a row, the Bears won a so-called “ugly” game. Once again, they had to orchestrate a fourth-quarter comeback to secure the victory. But once again, I say that a win counts the same in the standings no matter how it’s attained.

I’m not naive to think that the Bears are a finished product, or even a polished one. But this is a good football team, and good football teams find ways to win when they don’t play their best.

Surely, the talk of Chicago on Monday, and possibly throughout the week, will be the three turnovers that Cutler committed — two interceptions, one of which happened at the goal line, and one fumble returned for a touchdown. There is no defense for these mistakes and he needs to avoid making them. But without Cutler, the Bears don’t drive down the field in three minutes, five seconds and score the game-winning touchdown. The back shoulder throw he tossed to Bennett on the game-winner was a thing of beauty. It was perfectly placed where only the Black Unicorn could catch it and it gave Bennett enough time to get both feet down before crossing the goal line with the ball.

Turnovers aside, Cutler had a great game. He completed 28 of 39 passes for 290 yards, three touchdowns and a 97.2 passer rating. You have to take the bad with the good, and as long as he doesn’t cost the Bears victories, I’ll take the bad every time.

Defensively, the Bears continue to struggle without any semblance of a pass rush. The defensive backfield is getting shredded this year because Pro Bowlers Julius Peppers and Henry Melton are failing to make much of a cameo in the backfield. Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin have chipped in at times, and Stephen Paea may be playing the best of the bunch. But if this unit does not improve, the Bears could find themselves in a heap of trouble against teams with better offenses. I shudder to think what Aaron Rodgers will do against this Bears secondary if given the time to throw that Ponder was presented on Sunday.

The Bears’ run defense had an admirable performance against the league’s best running back. Peterson racked up 100 yards on 26 carries, for a little under four yards per rush. Those are good statistics, but they’re not great by his standards. Plus, they kept Peterson out of the end zone.

Lastly, I have to give kudos to Devin Hester for a great game. There were a lot of murmurs permeating through the airwaves this past week about whether Hester is “obsolete” in this era of the NFL due to an increased number of touchbacks in the game. The answer is, yes, he’s no good to the Bears — if and only if teams are able to kick the ball out of the end zone every time.

But as he proved on Sunday against the Vikings, kickers still have to be careful about kicking the ball to him because he will make them pay. Hester broke the franchise record — set by himself — for kickoff return yards in a single game with 249. He gave the offense great field position all game, proving once again that he can still be an elite returner and that he and his position are not obsolete.

After two straight home games to kick off the season, the Bears will take their act on the road to face the Steelers on Sunday Night Football next week. Normally a tough place to play, Pittsburgh isn’t exactly setting the league on fire this year. They lost their home opener to a lousy Titans team, and there’s a good chance they’ll fall to 0-2 after playing the Bengals Monday night. Although the Steelers are not as good as they normally are, the Bears can’t afford to take them lightly. An angry, 0-2 team playing at home will be a difficult team to contend with.

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