Monday Morning Quarterback: Bears-Browns (12.15.13)

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The eye test wasn’t pretty, but Jay Cutler’s return to the starting lineup was ultimately a successful one, as the Bears outlasted the Browns, 38-31, on Sunday. The win moves them into first place in the NFC North by a half game.

Okay, it may be a short-lived run in first place if the Lions knock off the Ravens on Monday Night Football, but it was an important win for the Bears nonetheless.

Cutler began the game where backup Josh McCown left off last week by methodically picking apart the defense and moving the Bears offense down the field. Also like McCown last week, Cutler threw a pass into coverage in the end zone. But, whereas McCown was fortunate that a Cowboys defender dropped a potential pick, Cutler wasn’t as lucky, and the Bears’ opening drive ended in an interception.

That pick brought out a slew of angry Bears fans, those who wanted to say “I told you so” and receive their vindication for standing behind McCown.

The Browns capitalized on the takeaway by driving down the field for a score, but had to settle for three points as the Bears defense showed up to play.

On the next Bears possession, Cutler again led the Bears down the field, picking apart the Browns defense. Cutler went 5-for-5 on the drive for 61 yards and the Bears tacked on three points to tie the game.

After a Zack Bowman interception of a Jason Campbell pass, the Bears and Browns traded three-and-outs. That’s when Cutler’s second mistake of the game occurred. Looking for Brandon Marshall down the left side of the field, Cutler’s pass floated too high, the ball was tipped and Cleveland’s Tashaun Gipson hauled it in and returned it for a touchdown.

At that point, the Twittersphere exploded, and not just with angry Bears fans who dislike Cutler or were just supporters of McCown. Because the Cutler-McCown debate was one of the biggest football stories nationally, there were NFL analysts across the country weighing in on Cutler’s second interception and whether Marc Trestman made a big mistake.

Even I, a Cutler supporter (but a non-apologist), was speechless at that moment and had nothing to say. It was a bad throw. I knew it. Cutler haters knew it. Everybody knew it. Even Marshall said after the game that Cutler “threw a terrible ball.” But I wasn’t willing to jump ship on Cutler, and neither was Trestman. And that faith paid off.

After the second interception, Cutler went 14 of 18 for 161 yards, three TDs and a 143.5 passer rating, according to the Tribune’s David Haugh. Now that’s efficiency.

Unfortunately, for many of those who cling to bad memories, none of that performance registered with them, as they continued to remain disgruntled over Cutler’s two picks. But even with the two interceptions, Cutler finished with a passer rating of 102.2, a very impressive number.

No, from that point on, Cutler was not the problem. The Bears had a host of other issues spring up.

Coming out of halftime tied at 10, the Bears seemed poised to break open the game when Bowman picked off Campbell for the second time, this time returning it 43 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.

But on the Browns’ ensuing possession, Campbell led his offense on a 10-play, 85-yard drive in which the defense caved and yielded big runs. The Browns pulled out the Wildcat offense and backup tight end MarQueis Gray, a former quarterback and wide receiver in college, picked up 30 yards on back-to-back rushing attempts. Then, Edwin Baker, in his first NFL game, punched in a touchdown run to tie the game at 17.

After a good start to the game for the Bears defense, that touchdown drive looked more like what we’ve seen from them in the past six weeks or so … making names for nobodies.

Have no fear, though, the Bears offense has almost always rebounded from defensive adversity. And Cutler had settled into his role by then. On the very next drive, the Bears offense started moving down the field as they do so well. Unfortunately, this time is was tight end Martellus Bennett’s turn to cough up the football. The Browns defense stripped him after a catch and they returned the fumble 51 yards to set themselves up with a 24-17 lead.

Frustration mounted as a bad Browns team was winning a game they had no business winning. The Bears — with three turnovers — were gift-wrapping the game and handing it to the Browns as an early Christmas present.

Fortunately, all you need in order to compete in today’s NFL is an explosive offense, and the Bears have just that.

Early in the fourth quarter, still trailing by seven points, Cutler heaved a pass from midfield down to the goal line. It was a pass that Cutler later would say he thought was going to be his third interception. But the emerging Alshon Jeffery — he of the ridiculous sideline, end zone, and jump ball receptions — made another impressive catch in double coverage, getting his large mitts on the ball and falling forward into the end zone for the game-tying touchdown.

On a side note, had Cutler been correct that the pass was indeed his third interception, the pick would have been nullified anyway because the Browns were flagged for roughing the passer. Instead, the touchdown counted and the penalty was enforced on the kickoff.

After a Browns three-and-out, the Bears offense took the field again, this time trying to milk the clock as they made their potential game-winning drive. Matt Forte rushed four times for 22 yards before Cutler hooked up with Earl Bennett on third and goal for the go-ahead score.

After another failed Browns drive, the Bears got the ball back with about four minutes to play, which they were hoping to run out by picking up a few first downs. However, backup Michael Bush had other plans as he broke off a simple off-guard run 40 yards for a touchdown.

The Bears had a two-touchdown lead at that point, which looked like it was plenty. The Browns, however, still had life in them and Campbell found Josh Gordon down the left sideline in between coverage for a 43-yard touchdown strike. However, the Browns’ ensuing onside kick attempt failed and the Bears ran out the clock for the win.

In hindsight, when reviewing the game objectively after already knowing the outcome, the Bears did not play as poorly as one would have thought during and immediately following the game on Sunday. But between the combination of the Browns being a bad football team, the Bears already having lost to bad teams like the Redskins, Rams, and Vikings this year, and the offense turning the ball over three times — two of which were returned for scores — it looked far worse Sunday afternoon.

Now, the Bears play the waiting game. I’m sure all players will be glued to their TVs Monday night when the Lions play host to the Ravens. Of the Lions’ three remaining games, this one appears to be the toughest, although one never knows what will happen from week to week. And even if the Lions do lose Monday night, the Bears are still in a tough situation traveling to Philadelphia next week.

All we can do is wait.

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