Cutler, promoted as the Bears’ first franchise quarterback since the 1940s icon Sid Luckman, has not always lived up to that billing in his 30 games in Chicago. But he has rarely been better than he was for 15 minutes against on Sunday.
Cutler completed 6 of 7 passes for 115 yards and 3 touchdowns in the third quarter as the Bears rallied for a 38-34 victory in a lakefront shootout at Soldier Field.
Already assured of the N.F.C. North title, the Bears (11-4) strengthened their bid to gain a first-round bye and get a playoff home game with their seventh win in eight games. A playoff team for the first time in four years, they will close the regular season at next week.
Coach Lovie Smith stopped short of calling it Cutler’s best game as a Bear, or even his best quarter.
“He’s played well a lot of times, and we expect that from him — you want your playmakers making plays in games like this, and today he did,” Smith said.
Cutler finished a rather pedestrian 13 of 25, for 215 yards and 3 touchdowns, an interception and a 104.2 passer rating. He was sacked twice and had a hand in creating the 21-10 deficit the Bears faced in the second quarter when he hung a ball in the wind on an out route to Earl Bennett. Jets cornerback Dwight Lowery stepped in front of Bennett and returned the interception 20 yards for a touchdown.
But Cutler was as good as he had to be thereafter.
“They showed a lot of crazy looks and it was confusing at first, but I was able to settle down,” he said. “They were playing a lot of press coverage, and that creates one-on-one opportunities, so we knew we’d have to take some shots. The offensive line played well all game long, gave me a lot of time. And the receivers made some plays.”
Cutler’s first touchdown pass, a 40-yarder to Johnny Knox, tied the score at 24-24 and came one play after the Jets fooled no one with a trick punt play on fourth-and-3 from their 40-yard line on their first possession of the second half. The Bears knew something was up when Jets quarterback stayed on the field, and the special-teams ace Rashied Davis broke up Sanchez’s pass to Brad Smith.
“They probably thought they’d catch us back on our heels, and they didn’t,” Davis said. “We could tell they were going to try something from who they had on the field — Sanchez, plus guys who never play gunner.”
The Jets punted after three plays on their next possession, then made another tactical error when punter Steve Weatherford kicked the ball to Devin Hester, who set an record last week with his Hester’s 38-yard return to the Jets 32 all but negated Weatherford’s 43-yard punt, and Cutler and Hester hooked up on a 25-yard touchdown pass three plays later.
“I don’t get that many opportunities, so when I do I want to make the most of them,” Hester said.
He got another chance when the Jets kicked off to him after Sanchez tied the score with a touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes. Hester’s 40-yard return to midfield set up Cutler’s 26-yard touchdown pass to Knox for a 38-31 lead.
“All week long the Jets said they wouldn’t kick it to Devin, but we figured they would,” Davis said. “From watching ‘Hard Knocks,’ they seem a little arrogant about their special teams.”