Bears quarterback Josh McCown is making it very difficult to consider him the backup to injured Jay Cutler, who missed his fourth straight game with a high ankle sprain.
McCown, who had been superb in each of his previous six games -- whether relieving Cutler or starting in place of him -- turned in his best performance yet at frozen Soldier Field on Monday night, where the game-time temperature was 8 degrees with a wind chill of minus-9.
McCown led the Bears to a 45-28 victory, improving his team to 7-6 and dropping the Cowboys to the same record. The Bears scored on each of their first eight possessions, and McCown produced a 141.9 passer rating, the highest of his career, completing 27 of 36 passes for 348 yards with 4 touchdown passes to four different receivers and no interceptions.
He became the first Bears quarterback since Jack Concannon in 1970 to throw for 4 touchdowns and run for another.
Combined with the Lions' 34-20 loss to the Eagles in Philadelphia on Sunday, the Bears have the same record as Detroit, which has the tie-breaker advantage having swept the season series.
"Josh played an excellent game," said Bears coach Marc Trestman. "There were a lot of exceptional catches made, and it all starts with the offensive line. Josh had good protection."
McCown has posted a passer rating of over 90 in each of the seven games he's played this season, something Cutler has never done. But the plan is still for McCown to head back to the bench when Cutler is healthy, which could be as early as Sunday in Cleveland.
"There's no change in the plan," Trestman said. "When Jay's ready to play, he'll play. When he's good to go he'll be out there."
As he had in a nearly perfect first half, when he completed 18 of 23 passes for 222 yards, McCown came out throwing to open the second half. Three short flips to running back Matt Forte picked up 41 yards, including 34 yards on the last one when Forte cut back against the grain and turned a short lob into a long gain.
When the drive stalled just inside the red zone, the Bears settled for Robbie Gould's 34-yard field goal and a 27-14 lead just 2:58 into the third quarter.
Forte was one of four Bears receivers with at least 5 catches, as McCown distributed the ball equitably and was sacked just once. Despite three straight starts with passer ratings over 102, McCown isn't clamoring for Cutler's job -- even though a lot of observers feel he deserves it.
"I want to play efficient football and keep us in contention," the 11-year veteran said. "As long as Jay is healthy and ready to go, I don't think it's a question (of who should start). I'm the backup, and Jay's our starter. So, if he's healthy, he should start."
After Gould's field goal to open the second-half scoring, the defense, which played one of its best games after two miserable outings, gave the ball back to the Bears. They continued to throw what had become a rock-hard and slippery football in the frigid conditions. But, after 3 near interceptions, one of which was actually picked off by the Cowboys but negated by a defensive holding call, the attack moved to the ground. Six Forte runs piled up 38 yards, and 2 carries by Michael Bush added 14 before McCown threw a 4-yard TD pass to Forte (102 yards on 20 carries and 7 catches for 73 yards) to swell the Bears' lead to 35-14.
Again the Bears' defense, which was criticized continuously as the team lost three of its previous four games, held and gave the ball back to its offense on down, where McCown's 17-yard pass to Bush gave the Bears a 42-14 lead and allowed frozen fans to head for the warmth of indoors with 14:24 left in the game.
The 45 points and 490 yards were both season highs for the Bears and came on the heels of maybe the most disappointing loss of the year, the overtime debacle in Minnesota against the Vikings.
"I'm really proud of the way we came off a very disappointing loss," Trestman said. "Nobody flinched. Coaches took accountability for mistakes, and players took accountability. My only message to the team was, 'We have to get a win Monday night.'"
With time running out in the first half, McCown fired a ball deep into the farthest west corner of the south end zone that turned out to be the game's most spectacular play. Jeffery elevated high over a pair of Cowboys to pluck the ball from the air and touched both feet just inches inside the back line for his sixth TD of the season and a 24-14 lead with 10 seconds left before Mike Ditka's number was retired at halftime.
McCown came out red-hot in the coldest game of the season.
After leading a TD drive on the opening possession he went back to work on his next opportunity. The 34-year-old completed 5 of 6 for 49 yards to set up his own 7-yard scoring run on which he tumbled into the end zone after hurdling Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee and safety J.J. Wilcox at the goal line. That gave the Bears a 14-7 lead with 8:58 left in the first half.
But the offense was just getting warmed up on a freezing night of redemption.
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