Fox’s Aikman Gave Bears’ Cutler Benefit of the Doubt

Fox’s did not question Cutler’s toughness, as , or the extent of his injury, which the Bears said on Monday was a sprained medial collateral ligament.

“When I left the booth,” Aikman said by phone Monday, “I was talking to one of the guys and said, ‘As soon as you say he could have come back and played, you’ll read in the paper the next day that it’s a blown-out knee.’ ” He added, “If a player’s not playing, I assume that the guy can’t play.”

Aikman recalled a game when a Dallas teammate, center Mark Stepnoski, hurt a knee but told no one, then stayed in for six more plays. “He said, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong,’ but it turned out from an M.R.I. that he’d blown his A.C.L.,” Aikman said. “He thought it was a sprain.”

Cutler’s team rushed to his defense Monday. Coach Lovie Smith told The Associated Press that Cutler, who was sacked a league-leading 52 times this season, “showed a lot of toughness to continue to play with it.” Smith emphasized it was the team that decided to bench Cutler.

The third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie said, “I’ll just tell you this, the one thing I know about Jay Cutler is he’s tough.”

To Aikman, the vitriolic reaction to Cutler was about the attitude he has shown since he arrived in the league. Aikman said, “I think it speaks to how polarizing he has become.”

And the severity of Cutler’s injury might have inadvertently been played down by the Bears when they termed his return “questionable” and by Fox’s being unable to find the play on which he was injured.

“To say he was ‘questionable’ implies the injury wasn’t too bad,” Aikman said.

CROMARTIE SOUNDS OFF Using the same salty language as he had two weeks earlier to describe New England quarterback , cornerback Antonio Cromartie lashed out at the players union and the league for the lack of progress on a new collective bargaining agreement. “You don’t get no information about nothing from the union or the owners,” he said. Cromartie said the two sides had to come together and stop complaining about money, adding, “Money ain’t nothing.”

Cromartie, who completed his first year with the Jets and is to become a free agent, said he was angry because a potential lockout would prevent him from pursuing his livelihood. Cromartie said he did not care if union and league negotiators got mad at him.

“This is what we do for our careers,” he said. “And you are dealing with hundreds of thousands of other people that are in this workplace as well.” DAVE CALDWELL

BRADY LEADS ALL-PRO TEAM quarterback Tom Brady is the leading vote-getter for The Associated Press 2010 All-Pro Team. Brady, one of three New England players on the team, was a unanimous choice by the panel of 50 members of the news media. defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was the only rookie to be chosen. (AP)

SAY NO TO PALMER The Bengals made it clear they want to keep quarterback , 31, who recently asked for a trade. According to The Cincinnati Enquirer and the team’s Web site, the owner Mike Brown said, “He was told that, and that we count on him going forward.” Palmer, the first overall pick in 2003, led the Bengals to the playoffs in 2005 and 2009 — Cincinnati’s only winning seasons in the last 20 years. (AP)

AGUILERA TO SING ANTHEM It was announced that , a five-time Grammy winner, will sing the national anthem at the . It will be her second performance at a Super Bowl; she was part of the halftime show in 2000. (AP)

NEW HIGHS FOR TV RATINGS In a demonstration of the ’s drawing power, the conference championship games Sunday were seen by an average of nearly 107 million viewers, including 54.9 million for Pittsburgh’s 24-19 victory over the Jets, the most for an A.F.C. title game.

The last time the A.F.C. championship game exceeded 50 million viewers was in 1982, when Cincinnati defeated San Diego, 27-7, in the so-called Freezer Bowl at Riverfront Stadium. The game’s viewership peaked at 57.5 million between 7:30 and 8 p.m. Eastern.

’s win over Chicago attracted 51.9 million viewers, the most for an N.F.C. title game played in the early Sunday time slot, but below the 57.9 million for last year’s New Orleans-Minnesota game, which was primarily in prime time.

RICHARD SANDOMIR

Bears, Cutler Hold Off Playoff-Bound Jets 38-34

CHICAGO The way was picking them apart early, the Chicago Bears looked as though they were in for a rough afternoon against the .

Instead, they regrouped and moved closer to a first-round bye.

Jay Cutler threw three touchdown passes, Matt Forte ran for 113 yards and the Bears beat the playoff-bound Jets 38-34 on Sunday.

The Jets (10-5) lost for third time in four games, but clinched their second straight postseason trip under coach when Jacksonville lost 20-17 in overtime to Washington. Chris Harris intercepted Sanchez on a pass intended for Santonio Holmes with about a minute left to end New York’s comeback bid.

The win was the seventh in eight games for the Bears (11-4), who blew an early 10-point lead. Chicago is now in good position to lock up a bye. The Bears came in needing a win, coupled with a loss by Philadelphia and a loss or tie by the Giants. The won’t play until Tuesday after their game against Minnesota got pushed back by snow.

Cutler completed 13 of 25 passes for 215 yards, with Johnny Knox catching four for 92 with two touchdowns, the second coming when he beat Antonio Cromartie on a 26-yarder that broke a 31-31 tie in the third quarter.

Forte had a big game and, assuming those numbers stand, will be the first opponent to run for 100 or more yards against the Jets this season. Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall had a yard deducted after initially being credited with 100 last week.

Sanchez seemed to be just fine after playing most of last week’s win over Pittsburgh with a shoulder injury. He threw for 269 yards and a touchdown, completing 24 of 37 passes after a sizzling start, but his interception sealed the win for Chicago and capped another wild week for New York that included more headline-grabbing distractions.

At the center of it was Ryan, who was the subject of an embarrassing foot-fetish report by Deadspin featuring videos of a woman — who bears a close resemblance to Ryan’s wife, Michelle — displaying her toes to an off-screen cameraman who sounds a lot like the coach. Ryan had little to say about the report, repeatedly calling it “a personal matter.” The week then ended on a sour note, with the Jets getting outplayed in the second half after erasing an early 10-point deficit.

Sanchez completed 13 of 15 passes for 156 yards in the first half, and the Jets led 24-17, but the momentum turned in a big way after halftime.

A fake punt by New York on the opening drive of the third quarter failed as Sanchez’s pass to Brad Smith fell incomplete and things only got worse from there.

Cutler tied it on the next play when he hit Knox in the end zone with a 40-yard touchdown, and in a flash, the Bears were leading thanks to two big plays by Devin Hester.

One week after he set the league record with his 14th career kick return for a touchdown against Minnesota last week, he wowed the crowd again with another big return. This one came after Ryan vowed to avoid him. Instead, Hester returned a punt 38 yards to the New York 32, putting a neat juke on James Ihedigbo as he turned up the right side that caused his leg to give way and left him with a knee injury.

Then, Hester beat Drew Coleman and caught a 25-yard TD pass from Cutler along the left side that gave the Bears a short-lived 31-24 lead.

New York immediately tied it on a 23-yard pass from Sanchez to Holmes, but Chicago answered again.

This time, Knox beat Cromartie while hauling in a 26-yard scoring pass that made it 38-31 with about 6 minutes left in the quarter.

A 34-yard field goal by Folk in the opening seconds of the fourth pulled New York within four, and Chicago’s Robbie Gould then was wide right on a 35-yarder, the shortest miss of his career.