Bears Have Look of a Champion With Cutler

Urlacher offered that observation last week, before Cutler strafed the playoff-bound New York Jets with three third-quarter touchdown passes in a 38-34 victory that ran the Bears’ two-week point total to 78, a figure both unattainable and unimaginable when Grossman was their quarterback.

A stout defense, a strong running game and Devin Hester’s electrifying kick returns were the Bear essentials in ’06, when they went 13-3 and added playoff victories over Seattle and New Orleans. All Grossman had to do then was keep things moving and not mess up. But more was required of him when the Bears fell behind ’s Indianapolis Colts in the Miami drizzle during Super Bowl XLI. When Grossman couldn’t deliver, his shortcomings were magnified and his days in Chicago were numbered.

Kyle Orton was taller, but not much of an upgrade otherwise. Thus the 2009 mega-trade for Cutler, the Bears’ first — stop us if you’ve heard this before — franchise quarterback since Sid Luckman.

Cutler does not present a charismatic, own-the-town personality. He comes across as rather smug and above it all. And his zealous belief in that loaded right arm is always going to result in a throw or two that should not be made.

But he has the team in the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-7 season, which is a lifetime in Bear years. And glimpses of brilliance like the one he offered during Sunday’s third quarter have turned some of the most hardened skeptics into believers.

That’s how it works in the : a team is as good as its quarterback. Can anyone name six Patriots besides Man of the Era ? Would the Eagles be such a compelling story if anyone other than the dynamically gifted and distastefully flawed were lighting their fire?

Peyton Manning, , Matt Ryan, . Nearly every team with a realistic shot at the Super Bowl has a Super Bowl-caliber performer at quarterback. The Bears believe they do, too. They admire Cutler’s toughness as much as his talent, and that means something.

“If you run hard on your routes and get open, Jay’s going to get you the ball — you know that,” said Hester, still a kick-returning dynamo who also has 39 catches and four touchdowns as a slot receiver.

The pairing of Cutler with mad scientist/offensive coordinator has been the Bears’ most avidly followed back story since training camp. They got off to a shaky start, and Cutler took a frightful pounding, largely because a leaky offensive line did not allow him time to find the receivers supposedly set free by Martz’s intricate scheming.

“You can’t come out here Week 1 and expect to be firing on all cylinders,” Cutler said. “We hadn’t experienced some of the plays put in. Until you go out there and repeat them and see looks and know how to react, it’s not going to come together.”

The Bears have won seven of eight since some bye-week retrofitting resulted in a renewed emphasis on the running game and shorter, safer drops for Cutler. He has been sacked a league-high 46 times, but 26 came in his first six games, including a horrendous nine against the Giants on Oct. 3. He has been down 19 times in the eight games since the bye week, and the line afforded him enough protection to throw those three home-run balls against the Jets.

“Everything is starting to come together now,” Cutler said. “The guys are starting to pick it up, the offensive line is playing well — it’s fun out there.”

The Eagles’ inexplicable loss to the outmanned Vikings on Tuesday night means Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Packers in Green Bay is of no consequence for the Bears. The Packers (9-6) need to win to make the playoffs, pure and simple. The Bears (11-4) are already assured of a first-round bye and at least one playoff game at home, though the value of that is dubious. They’re 5-3 at home this year and 6-1 on the road, where their defense allows nearly 10 fewer points per game.

Along with good fortune — the disallowed touchdown in the Detroit game, the Green Bay penalties, Miami’s reliance on an off-the-street quarterback, etc. — has come uncommonly good health: only one starter, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, has missed extended time. Cutler sat out one game with a concussion, but Carolina was the opponent, and the Bears would have beaten the Panthers with Henry Burris or Moses Moreno under center.

The Packers are a different story. They’re desperate, and their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, is one of the hottest in football. The Bears are running into him one week after they made the Jets’ look like Johnny Unitas. Cutler just might be the least of their concerns.

dmcgrath@chicagonewscoop.org

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