CLEVELAND – As it turns out, Chicago Bears coach Marc Trestman knew what he was doing when he re-inserted Jay Cutler as his starting quarterback on Sunday.
The Browns defense — or lack thereof — helped.
Cutler shook off some rust and two first-half interceptions, one that was returned by Tashaun Gipson for a Browns touchdown. He went on to throw for 265 yards and two touchdowns as the Bears beat the Browns, 38-31, to move to 8-6 on the season and take at least a temporary hold on first place in the NFC North. That makes two wins in six days for the Bears after two losses, and a bit of vindication for Trestman.
Trestman kept insisting going back to Cutler was both the right thing and his only plan for the Bears as they chase the postseason, even with backup Josh McCown playing the best football of his career in Cutler’s four-week absence.
“There was a lot of noise around our team this week,” Trestman said after Sunday’s game.
In the postgame locker room, there was much rejoicing about a big win — and the chance to chase two more and a possible division crown.
“I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t pressure,” Cutler said. “This was the plan all along and no one really flinched inside the building. Josh was super supportive, (Trestman), the guys on the field were great. It was fun getting back out there and I look forward to moving on from this week.”
The Bears didn’t punt in a 45-28 dismantling of the Cowboys last Monday night with McCown throwing four touchdown passes and running for another. McCown is completing 67 percent of his passes on the year with 13 touchdowns and just one interception.
Taking out the hot hand for the returning starter made for a hot button topic in Chicago. Cutler’s two interceptions made for a rocky start — the Browns led, 10-3, late in the first half — but he rebounded with a strong finish.
“I can only imagine what the commentators and fans back at home were saying after the (two) picks,” Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall said. “I’m sure they were ready to hang him. This team has been resilient all year, faced adversity all year.
“Hat’s off to Jay. He’s been doing it all year when he’s healthy, playing lights out in the fourth quarter. We expected to win. We expected it to be a little rough, and we came out on top.”
Cutler was sacked twice but had plenty of time to throw most of the day, and in the second half he threw some lasers. He was 9-of-12 for 97 yards in that second half; the Bears had scoring drives of 95, 78 and 36 yards in the fourth quarter, scoring 21 unanswered after trailing 24-17.
Cutler finished the 95-yard drive with a 45-yard floater to Alshon Jeffery, who wasn’t necessarily open but used his body to take Browns cornerback Julian Posey out of the play and reached up to catch the ball when Gipson just missed getting his outstretched hands on it.
“I make my quarterback look good and he makes me look good,” Jeffery said.
Said Cutler: “I started off rusty but the guys rallied around me. They made big catches and the offensive line played great. It feels really good getting back out there.”
The Bears won’t know where they stand until the 7-6 Lions play the Ravens Monday night. The Lions swept the season series and would win a potential head-to-head tiebreaker. The Bears can only focus on winning at Philadelphia next week and vs. Green Bay in the season finale and then see if that’s good enough.
They’ll play those games with Cutler at quarterback.
“Jay made a couple of mistakes and I’m sure he’ll readily admit that,” Trestman said. “There were times he wasn’t sharp, but overall I thought he was very sharp.
“I think he’ll get better as we move along, certainly.”