Toronto worth trip for Bears
Lovie's crew cured red zone, third-down woes and just might have saved season
TORONTO -- Crazy things can happen in a country where the loonie is a form of currency, rather than simply a description of Mike Martz's play calling.
Defying recent precedence, not to mention diminished expectations, the Bears proved they can still do the little things right.
In a 22-19 win over the feisty Buffalo Bills on somewhat-neutral ground, the offensive line actually blocked, Jay Cutler correctly recognized pressure, the Bears scored from the 1-yard line, scored in the third quarter -- both firsts this season, in case you haven't been counting -- and converted more third downs than they didn't.
Wild stuff, right?
Chicago had to come to a country where they punt on third down to learn how to convert third downs.
The sometimes-hapless Bears beat the still-winless Bills in a football game that riveted this country like no sporting event since Henry Burris led the Calgary Stampeders to the Grey Cup in 2008.
Or something like that.
Chicago came up on the right side of a roller-coaster fourth quarter in which Tim Jennings made an interception to set up the winning score and Chris Harris made one to close it out. In between, Cutler made one of the biggest throws of his career, a simple 2-yard touchdown pass to Earl Bennett.
It was a wild ending to what looked like a humdrum game in the first half, as the Bears avoided the ignominy of losing to a winless team.
For a while, late in the game, that result looked probable.
If the Bears had lost this game, there wouldn't have been enough bile to go around for the Lovie Smith-Jerry Angelo-Mike Martz triumvirate.
Yes, I'm speculating and projecting, but by beating the now 0-8 Bills, the Bears saved their season.
For a week, at least, the obituaries have been saved and filed away. Roland Burris' guys have stopped working on the 2010 season mausoleum.
Jay Cutler and Lovie Smith
Bears coach Lovie Smith and quarterback Jay Cutler discuss the team's 22-19 victory over the Bills.
While Jennings' turnover sparked the win, it was the Bears' improvement in winning situations, not to mention an improved dedication to blocking, that won the game.
In a lot of ways, it's amazing the Bears have won two games, let alone five, considering their distaste for basic principles of third-down conversions and red zone scoring. Coming into the game, the Bears were last in the NFL on third downs (18 percent), last in red zone scoring (30 percent) and 0-for-10 from the 1-yard line.
Cutler has been sacked more than any quarterback; this time he was sacked only once. Sure, he fumbled on the play and the Bills eventually scored on the turnover, but it was a vast improvement. Roberto Garza's return helped solidify a unit that has had a worse fall than congressional Democrats.
With an extra week to decompress from a 1-4 slide, Chicago converted 7 of 12 third downs and scored touchdowns on three of four red zone trips, including Chester Taylor's 1-yard scoring run in the third quarter.
"Red zone and third downs," Cutler said. "If you win those battles, you'll probably win the game."
Scoring inside the 20 and keeping drives alive really works, huh? The pundits were right, Martz really is a genius.
The Bills were a popular underdog pick in some circles, thanks to the Charlie Brown-esque cloud of failure. They certainly had karma on their side after consecutive overtime losses to playoff-bound teams, and in truth, their record is deceiving.
"I think momentum was against us today, playing the way we've been playing," Brian Urlacher said.
Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was in a pretty good rhythm in the second half, directing consecutive touchdown drives, but Jennings made the play of the game at the right time.
With just more than 9 minutes to play and the Bills leading 19-14, Jennings picked off an underthrown pass and returned it 39 yards to the Bills' 23-yard line to set up the winning score. He was working with safety help and held onto the ball, juggling it for extra drama.
"Finishing the job, getting that, really kind of switched momentum in our favor," Smith said.
After the pick, Cutler hit Greg Olsen for an 18-yard catch on third-and-10, ignoring a quicker throw to a wide-open Devin Hester, and then on third-and-2, he found Bennett running right to the rear corner of the end zone for the winning touchdown. Cutler connected with Matt Forte on a shuffle pass for the two-point conversion.
"We was on the sidelines, and we knew we had to make a play just to get the offense back the ball," Jennings said of his play. "We were able to go out and do that. When I caught that ball, I tried to get as many yards as I can to put the offense in a good position."
Cutler was appreciative. He was 17-for-30 for 188 yards and two touchdowns.
While he didn't throw a pick, he fumbled to start the fourth trying to do a spin move against Spencer Johnson. The Bills scored to take the lead.
"Defense is keeping us in games, keeping us alive; big turnovers, defense getting us good field position," Cutler said. "As long as we keep coming along and catching up to the defense, we're going to be a good team come December."
Manitoba's famous son, Israel Idonije, had a big game, blocking an extra point and picking up half a sack. He raised his helmet while singing "O Canada," a moment he cherished.
"It was a great experience and coming back to Canadian soil to play," he said. "But the biggest point of the day is that we won."
I'm not sure how many Idonije fans were in attendance at Rogers Centre, but it was a largely pro-Bears crowd -- a "Ditka for Prime Minister" banner was spotted in the upper deck.
While Buffalo fell to oh-and-a-half-season, the Bears squashed a two-game losing streak just in time to return home for a pivotal game against Minnesota, which scored a wild comeback win of its own against Arizona.
It's fitting the Vikings are up next, because like the stubbly zombie that is Brett Favre, the Bears refuse to be buried.
Whatever happens next is anybody's guess, but this promises to be a memorable second half of a season that could very well determine the immediate future of this franchise.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.