CLEVELAND -- In his first game back after his backup Josh McCown had played some of the best quarterback in the NFL for four weeks, Jay Cutler admitted he felt pressure.
"I'd be lying if I didn't say there was," Cutler said. "With everything on the outside, and as well as Josh has played."
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Cutler looked like a combination of nerves, rust and adrenaline early, throwing a pair of interceptions. One undermined a Bears drive in the red zone and the other was returned for a touchdown giving the Browns a 10-3 lead.
"I can only imagine the commentators and the fans back at home -- after the first and second pick -- what they were saying," wide receiver Brandon Marshall said. "I'm sure they were ready to hang him. But this team has been resilient all year, faced adversity really well all year, and it was nothing short of that today."
No one had more adversity and angst to deal with than Cutler, who watched McCown build his passer rating to 109.8, third best in the NFL, while he waited for his high left ankle sprain to heal.
And, despite an opening 18 minutes in which critics could argue Cutler did as much for the Browns as he did for the Bears, he came roaring back from mediocrity with a flourish. Playing for the first time in five weeks, Cutler finished with a McCown-like 102.2 passer rating, completing 22 of 31 passes for 265 yards and more than offsetting his pair of picks with 3 touchdown passes.
The 38-31 victory lifted the Bears to 8-6. The Detroit Lions (7-6) need to defeat the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night to maintain their slim, tiebreaker edge over the Bears in NFC North.
Cutler admitted he approached several offensive teammates during the early part of last week to tell them he was ready to retake his rightful position as their leader, but also to ask if any of them had reservations, given how well McCown had played.
They were all behind him, as was the coaching staff, which laid out the plan for Cutler to return as the starter as soon as he was healthy.
Coach Marc Trestman never wavered from that plan, and he said he never considered hedging, even after Cutler's early struggles.
"A lot of thoughts crossed my mind," Trestman said. "That wasn't one of them. He was throwing the ball well enough, and he's a strong enough guy (mentally) to overcome it, and he did. He did it with the help of his teammates."
He had to handle a lot this week, probably more than at any time in his career for a number of different reasons. His teammates had his back the whole time, and you have to be mentally tough to do what he did today, very mentally tough. Not only to get through the week, but to get through a game in harsh (25-degree) weather, in harsh conditions (intermittent snow flurries) and throwing 2 picks in the first half. It says a lot about the man."
After his second pick put the Bears in a 10-3 hole, Cutler began to heat up. He dropped a 41-yard bomb down the sideline to Marshall and then went back to him for a 5-yard TD to tie it at 10-10 at halftime.
But late in the third quarter, tight end Martellus Bennett's fumble was returned 51 yards by safety T.J. Ward for a TD to give the Browns a 24-17 lead. Cutler responded with TD passes of 45 yards to Alshon Jeffery and 4 yards to Earl Bennett in a five-minute, 18-second span. Then, 3:24 later, Michael Bush burst 40 yards to put the Bears ahead 38-24 with just 2:17 remaining.
Cutler took a shot to the head from Browns linebacker Jabaal Sheard, so he never saw Jeffery make the catch, and he still hadn't seen it when he addressed the media afterward.
"My arm got hit, so I didn't think it was going to get there," Cutler said. "I was on the ground like, 'There's (pick) No. 3,' because I just thought it was going to be floating 20 yards down the field.
"Somehow it got all the way down there, and Alshon (who was double-covered) did what Alshon does best, make plays in the air. Great, great group of guys around me. It's a fun, fun group to play with."
The Bears have scored a total of 83 points in back-to-back wins (after losing three of four) to make themselves serious playoff contenders.
And a defense that has struggled for most of the season is showing signs of improvement. The Bears still need help from other teams to get past the Lions, but they appear to be capable of holding up their end of a postseason push.
"As I told the team," Trestman said, "We played well enough because we won and put ourselves in a position to compete for the division in the last two games.
"But we have to play better to win it."
Before Sunday's victory, there were plenty of critics who said that couldn't happen at quarterback -- but not anymore.
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