Cutler passes exam, but tougher test vs. Packers sure to follow
CHICAGO -- As much as some will say that Sunday's 35-24 victory over the Seahawks was a test for Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, it wasn't. OK, maybe a little bit. But not enough that anyone should draw definitive conclusions.
Cutler was facing a team that had lost seven consecutive road games in the playoffs and 14 of its last 17 away from Qwest Field in the regular season -- each by at least 11 points, with six by 21 or more. If that's a test, it's the kind where you're given the answers beforehand.
The real test for Cutler will come next weekend, when he and the Bears host the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. Cutler is 1-3 against Green Bay since arriving in Chicago before last season. He has not been on the plus side in turnover differential in any of those games, and overall he has thrown nine picks and only four scores while completing just 55.8 percent of his passes. Overcoming those statistics? Now there's a real test.
The good news for the Bears is that Cutler was borderline exceptional in his first playoff game since high school. He completed 15-of-28 passes for 274 yards and two touchdowns, ran for two more scores and -- most importantly -- did not commit a turnover.
Still, there was reason for pause.
On several occasions he made decisions that reminded you of why he was considered an X-factor before kickoff. He did things that made onlookers shake their heads in disbelief, such as early in the game near the Seattle goal line.
With a slot formation to the right, he attempted a slant pass to the front side of the formation.
Only instead of eating the football because no one was open, he released the ball. It was a perfect strike -- to cornerback Jordan Babineaux, whose hands were as reliable as Anquan Boldin's or T.J. Houshmandzedah's were Saturday night in the Ravens' loss to the Steelers. If Babineaux holds on, it's potentially a touchdown the other way, because Cutler is the only one who would have had a shot at him.
On another occasion, Cutler threw into tight coverage against cornerback Marcus Trufant and had the ball tipped high into the air. Fortunately for the Bears, no defender could get there in time for the interception.Still, it was the type of play that brought back memories of last season, when Cutler threw a league-high 26 interceptions. You want to believe he finally has arrived as an elite quarterback, yet there continue to be those plays that could go either way. Today they went his way. Next Sunday against the Packers defense that ranked second with 24 interceptions, who knows?
In the meantime, let us celebrate Cutler for an outstanding performance against the Seahawks, whose clock struck midnight with just under three minutes gone in the first quarter. That's when Cutler, on his first pass attempt, bounced on the balls of his feet in the pocket, slid to his left, then found tight end Greg Olsen deep down the right seam for a 58-yard touchdown.
Olsen had run by safety Lawyer Milloy without interference and, in full stride, reached out for a pass that spiraled perfectly through blowing snow flurries for a 7-0 lead. Seattle, which was the first team to reach the playoffs with a losing record in a non-strike year, never recovered. Its offense was in for a challenge from the outset against a Bears defense that allowed the third-fewest points in the league this season; but the job became doubly difficult when tight end John Carlson, who had two touchdown catches the previous week, sustained a head injury on the opening series and did not return.
He landed awkwardly along the sideline after being hit low and somersaulted into the air, landing on his head and shoulder. He was carted off on a stretcher with his head immobilized, but showed movement in his extremities.
Cutler had no trouble moving his offense. In the teams' previous meeting, a 23-20 Seahawks win in October, the Bears were 0-for-12 on third down. Sunday they were 10-for-18. They amassed 437 yards of total offense and scored touchdowns on three of their first four possessions for a 21-0 halftime lead that was pushed to 28-0 with a late third-quarter score on a 9-yard run by Cutler, who also scored in the second quarter on a 6-yard jaunt.
Cutler started so quickly, it was easy to forget he was making his first playoff appearance since attending Heritage Hills High in Lincoln City, Ind., where he was 26-1 his final two years -- including a 15-0 mark as a senior, when he led his school to its first state title. Cutler caught the winning touchdown in overtime, after lateraling and sneaking out of the backfield. His performance in this game was not as dramatic, but it was no less impressive. Outside of those handful of close calls, he was smart, accurate and disciplined. In fact, once the Bears got up by a two scores, he seemed more inclined to hold the ball than take a chance with a high risk-reward pass. Such was the case on both his touchdown runs.
He will have to be equally disciplined -- while still capitalizing on opportunities -- against the Packers, whose defense is the varsity to the Seahawks' JV.
"There were a few plays we left out there," Cutler said of Sunday. "In a game like this you can't do that, especially next week against a team like the Packers. ... They do a great job scheme-wise. They're going to show you a lot of different looks, they're going to fool you and bring a lot of different things at the snap of the ball. The way they use those linebackers, kind of walk them around. Charles Woodson, one of the best nickels in the league, especially blitzing off the edge and timing things up. They do a good job of disrupting. We're going to have to run the ball and hit some gaps and make them pay when they do stuff like that."
If the Bears are successful, they not only will receive an "A" grade, but a trip to the Super Bowl.