The Chicago Bears (8-6) had to win today's contest against the Cleveland Browns (4-10) to keep their playoff hopes alive. Things weren't looking good heading into the fourth quarter, with the Bears trailing 24-17.
Yet Chicago was able to reel off 21 unanswered points to seal a much-needed road victory. In the race for the NFC North, the Bears are currently a half game ahead of the Detroit Lions (7-6), who host the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night. If the Lions lose, Chicago will take sole possession of first place in the division.
Three performances stood out in today's contest, each of which was key in securing the team's 8th win of the season.
1) Alshon Jeffery's Weekly Highlight-Reel Touchdown
Down by seven points with just more than 11 minutes to play, the Bears were in dire straits facing a 3rd and 11 at the Cleveland 45-yard line. Jay Cutler dropped back to pass and, with no other receivers open, stepped into the pocket and launched a prayer in the direction of Alshon Jeffery.
Near the front pylon of the end zone, Jeffery had a defender in front of him and behind him, yet he was somehow able to snag the ball off his hip, secure it and dive in for the touchdown. For most receivers, that catch would be the highlight of his season, possibly even his career. Yet for Jeffery, it may not even be his best catch of the past three weeks. From Weeks 13-15, Jeffery has more than 400 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
His catch today though may have single-handedly kept Chicago's playoff hopes alive. It came at a point when the offense was absolutely desperate. They hadn't scored the entire second half to that point and were facing another 3rd and long. The pass was a prayer, one that Jeffery answered. If it weren't for his catch today, and his play this season, the Bears would not still be in the playoff picture.
2) No Wilting Under Pressure for Cutler
When Jay Cutler was cleared to play this week, coach Marc Trestman sent one of the most-productive quarterbacks of the past month, Josh McCown, to the bench. It elicited criticism from every corner of the football landscape and when Cutler threw two interceptions in the first half – one in the end zone and another that was returned for a score – it appeared Trestman might have made a mistake.
In the past, poor starts by Cutler would often snowball and result in some of his patented three- and four-pick contests. Yet Cutler didn't crumble under immense pressure. Instead, he calmly drove the offense down for a game-tying score to finish off the first half.
After struggling to move the ball for most of the second half, Cutler rose to the occasion in the fourth quarter, completing 4 of 5 passes for 67 yards and two touchdowns. After knocking off the dust in the first half – he hadn't played in more than a month – Cutler stepped up to the plate when his team needed him most.
He finished the contest 22 of 31 for 256 yards and 3 TDs, good for a 102.2 passer rating. People are still going to call for McCown but in the interim, it's very good for the Bears that Cutler was able to pick up right where he left off, even amidst the overwhelming din of criticism.
3) Who Needs Peanut?
Zack Bowman is no Charles Tillman but he definitely put together a Tillman-like performance: two passes defended, two interceptions and a touchdown. Bowman ran back his second pick 43 yards for a score that put Chicago up 17-10 early in the third quarter, at a time when the offense was having difficulties moving the ball. His score gave life to a team that needed a kick in the pants.
Yet, despite not creating any turnovers, Tim Jennings might have had the better game. For almost the entire contest, Jennings squared off against Josh Gordon, who set an NFL record for receiving yards the past four weeks. Gordon did haul in a 43-yard touchdown with less than two minutes to play, but that was in garbage time when the game was already over. Up to that point, Jennings held the hottest receiver in NFL history to just two catches for 24 yards. There are few corners in the league who can accomplish such a feat and Jennings deserves a lot of credit for his performance.
-RB Matt Forte and RB Michael Bush: Forte did his usual thing, racking up 127 yards on 24 carries. He had his worst receiving game of the year (1 catch, 4 yards) but he more than made up for it late in the contest when the Bears needed yards on the ground. Credit also goes to Bush, whose 40-yard burst in the fourth quarter proved to be the game winner.
-In just his third game this year, DT Jeremiah Ratliff had a very strong performance, finishing with two tackles, one for a loss, and three quarterback hurries – which were three more than the rest of the defensive line combined. If Ratliff can return to Pro Bowl form, and Lance Briggs comes back next week, the Bears' defense could return to respectability.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.