CHICAGO – If not for Jay Cutler, the Bears likely would have been doomed Sunday.
The offense’s first series started with a fumble. Its second series opened with a stumble.
But a rejuvenated Cutler refused to allow the offense to fall on its face again – even if that meant leaning down and tying J’Marcus Webb’s shoe during a timeout in the second half.
“I loosened it, tied it,” Cutler said with a grin. “I guess my fatherly instincts were kicking in.”
Gather around, children. Order has been restored to the Bears’ playoff pursuit.
The Bears overcame a slow start and a slew of injuries to beat the Minnesota Vikings, 28-10, in front of 62,306 fans at Soldier Field. Cutler passed for one touchdown and Michael Bush ran for two as the Bears (8-3) snapped a two-game skid before it became something worse.
Meanwhile, the Vikings (6-5) missed a chance to pull even with the Bears in the NFC North.
“It was a game we had to have,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said.
And Cutler was the player the Bears most needed to have.
A one-and-a-half-game absence because of a concussion illustrated Cutler’s value to the offense for those who required further proof. Eight-year veteran Jason Campbell struggled as Cutler’s replacement, and the Bears scored 10 points in six quarters without Cutler.
A day after Cutler received final clearance to face the Vikings, the Bears’ offense returned to competence. They did so despite injuries to three starters, running back Matt Forte (ankle), left guard Chris Spencer (knee) and right guard Lance Louis (right).
The constant amid so many changing pieces on offense was Cutler, who fired several passes into airtight spaces, including a 13-yard touchdown to Matt Spaeth in the second quarter. He absorbed a big hit from Vikings defensive end Jared Allen a moment after his pass to Spaeth, but he quickly returned to his feet as his teammates celebrated in the end zone.
Cutler’s final statistics were good but not great (23 of 31, 188 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT), but his impact on the game plan and the end result was impossible to overlook. He scrambled to evade Vikings’ pass rushers on several plays, and he completed 15 of his first 17 passes to help the Bears establish a comfortable 25-3 lead by halftime.
“Jay’s one of the best quarterbacks in the league,” Smith said. “Everybody needs their stud quarterback playing. We’re no different. We expected him to give us a boost.”
In the days leading up to the game, the Bears remained tight-lipped about Cutler’s status. But for teammates who watched him during practice, it was clear that he had no intention of missing his second consecutive game as his team battled its first slump of the season.
“Honestly, Jay was fiery,” wide receiver Brandon Marshall said. “[His] sense of urgency was the most I’ve seen all year. He was ready to go. He was fired up.”
Cutler credited offensive coordinator Mike Tice’s game plan with helping him succeed.
“The play-calling was good,” Cutler said. “I think when we stay committed to the run and we block well, we’re going to be successful. Whenever you get pass-happy and divert from the run, it’s hard in this league – especially in November and December.”
The Bears will turn their focus fully toward December when they return to practice at Halas Hall this week. Each of the Bears’ next three opponents has a winning record after 12 weeks: The Seattle Seahawks, the Vikings and the Green Bay Packers.
The Bears’ final two games of the regular season will be on the road against the Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions.
If Cutler stays healthy, the Bears have a chance to win any and all of those games.
“Not every team has a guy like we have in our quarterback position,” Smith said. “When plays break down, you’ve got a guy that can scramble around and make a play. A guy that can complete any throw you ask him to.
“And then [it’s] just the confidence that comes with having your guy, your quarterback. No matter how it’s looking, the guys have confidence with Jay leading us, we can come back.”