CHICAGO – Jay Cutler was down on the turf in obvious pain. The Bears looked to be in trouble.
By the end of the Bears’ 13-7 win against the Detroit Lions on Monday night at Soldier Field, Cutler was on his feet and congratulating his teammates. The Lions were the ones in trouble.
Any number of problems could undo the Bears’ mission for a Super Bowl championship this season, but toughness is not one of them.
The Bears (5-1) maintained their grip on first place in the NFC North thanks to a resilient quarterback and a remarkable defense. The Lions (2-4) did not score until 30 seconds remained in the game, spoiling the Bears’ bid for their first shutout since Nov. 18, 2010, at Miami.
“We had a lot of guys that really stepped up tonight,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said.
Yet a hard shot to Cutler’s ribs nearly represented a collective kick to the Bears’ big-picture goals. Although Cutler missed only a total of five plays as trainers checked him out at the end of the second quarter, the sequence offered a reminder of his six-game absence in 2011 and how quickly a team’s playoff chances can swing on the health of its quarterback.
After the game, Smith said Cutler played the second half with bruised ribs.
“He’s a tough guy,” Smith said. “Most people thought Jay would get up. Unless it’s a broken leg or something like that, he’s going to get up. … That was a gutsy effort by him.”
The play in which Cutler was injured was doomed from the start.
On first-and-10 from the Bears’ 26-yard line, Cutler dropped back to pass and surveyed the field. But the Lions’ defensive line crashed the pocket and forced Cutler to scramble to his right.
Lions’ defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh – a 6-foot-4, 307-pound behemoth with breakaway speed – quickly closed the gap as Cutler half-ran and half-looked downfield for receivers. Suh latched his right hand on to Cutler’s left hand, raised his left arm above Cutler’s left shoulder and body-slammed the quarterback to the ground as he held on to the ball.
Cutler crashed to the turf on his right side and stayed on the ground for a couple of quiet minutes as trainers attended to him. He drew a loud ovation from a crowd of 60,574 fans as he got to his feet and jogged to the sidelines.
Although Suh has a history of illegal hits, Cutler said Monday’s play was clean.
“I think so,” Cutler said. “I was outside the pocket. It’s football.”
Jason Campbell replaced Cutler for one play – a discombobulated run – before Cutler returned to throw an incomplete pass on third down. Campbell took over the next series with 1:22 remaining in the half as Cutler went to the locker room to have his ribs evaluated.
Cutler passed the test before passing the ball for seven completions on 14 attempts in the second half. He finished the game 16 of 31 for 150 yards and a touchdown, which came on a 7-yard pass to Brandon Marshall on the Bears’ first series of the game.
“Jay definitely gave us an emotional lift with his toughness,” said Marshall, who caught six passes for 81 yards. “We’re excited about where we’re at.”
After a hard-fought win, a soft spot in the schedule awaits Cutler and the Bears.
In six days, the Bears will host the Carolina Panthers (1-5), who have been outscored by a wider margin than any team in the NFC. The Panthers have not won since Sept. 16 and fired longtime general manager Marty Hurney on Monday as their playoff drought approaches four seasons.
One week later, the Bears will visit the Tennessee Titans (3-4), who have been outscored by a wider margin than any team in the AFC. Each of the Titans’ three wins has come by three points or less, while they have been outscored by an average of 24 points a game in four losses.
At this point, the only thing grittier than Cutler might be the Bears’ defense.
“You can’t say enough,” Cutler said, “about the way that they’re playing and coming together.”