- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- When it was announced last winter that Mike Martz was somewhere between the first and last choice to coach the Chicago Bears' offense, it was assumed that if Martz and Jay Cutler could coexist, the formerly hidebound unit would, at the very least, be entertaining.
When the offense didn't start like Rams Redux, Martz and Cutler warned it would take time. But it looked to some like a bad fit, a relationship more doomed than a romance with a reality star.
But now you can see Martz's machinations finally taking shape, and even though the offense isn't a finished product, no one should be too bearish on the Bears' offense anymore.
Yes, Virginia McCaskey, there is an offense in Chicago. And it can score in a hurry.
With Cutler and his speedy receiving corps taking advantage of man coverage and good field position, the Bears put up big points for the second straight game, scoring 21 points in quick order in the third quarter and outlasting the New York Jets 38-34 in an unexpected shootout at Soldier Field.
And just like that, the Bears are closing in on the second seed in the NFC playoffs.
The Bears aren't rewriting Martz's "Greatest Show on Turf" exploits, and they're still ranked near the bottom of the NFL, according to a slew of statistical evaluations. Still, against a Super Bowl-caliber defense, they scored four times from outside the red zone and looked positively formidable at times.
Cutler ran for a touchdown in the first half and threw three touchdown passes, all in the third quarter; Devin Hester gave the Bears great field position with two big returns; and Matt Forte became the first back this season to rush for 100 yards against the Jets.
As a man with a silly mustache once said famously in these parts, it certainly looks as though "the pieces are in place."
There are things to be tightened up, to be sure, but Cutler looks confident, Forte looks hungry, the receivers look fast and Martz looks as though he's nearly mastered the elusive balancing act of calling a game for this personnel.
Matching Chicago against one of the best defenses in the NFL, this game turned for the Bears in the third quarter, with Cutler going 6-for-7 for 115 yards, throwing three touchdown passes that were all longer than 25 yards to Johnny Knox and Devin Hester.
How big a deal was that?
Coming into the game, Cutler had thrown only two scoring passes longer than 20 yards to a receiver, both going to Knox. One of his five deep touchdown passes was an 89-yard screen pass to Forte. The other two were passes to Forte and Greg Olsen.
And how about this: A Bears quarterback hadn't thrown three scoring passes in a quarter since Erik Kramer did it in 1995.
"When Cutler is hot, he's as good as there is," Jets coach Rex Ryan said.
The newish wrinkle in the Bears' game plan won't go unnoticed. Playoff defenses in the NFC will definitely be rewinding the third quarter as Cutler proved he can beat a good team with deep routes, provided defenses attack him, which is almost a given with the way he gets sacked. There will be plenty of opportunities for him to show why he gets dogged by so many ex-players on TV.
The Jets surely figured their talented secondary could handle man coverage, and twice punted late in the fourth quarter in four-down territory, likely figuring Cutler would either melt down or the Bears would be so scared of a meltdown, they would play too conservatively.
In any event, the Jets couldn't take advantage and Cutler didn't turn the ball over, and Chris Harris had a game-ending interception.
"Our defense has won their fair share of games around here, so we're not really too concerned with them," Olsen said. "They're fine. It was our turn today on offense to step up and play well."
In all, Cutler got sacked only twice, while completing 13 of 25 passes for 215 yards. Not Pro Bowl numbers, but he took advantage of man coverage and looked electric in doing so.
"They were playing 'press man' and we came into it knowing we were going to have to take a few shots, go vertical on them," Cutler said. "We knew our speed would be hard for them to keep up with. When they're face-guarding like that, I'm just going to put it up and let the receiver make a play. It's really hard to stop."
Forte had a significant game, picking up 113 yards on just 19 carries, including a 22-yard touchdown, and 56 receiving yards. The formerly maligned offensive line came up big.
"I'm just proud of our team and especially our offensive line," Forte said. "They have a good defense and they pushed them around up front and allowed me to get through some holes."
Cutler was 7-for-14 for 98 yards in the first half, gift wrapping an errant throw to Dwight Lowery, who returned it 20 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. The Jets, who trailed early 10-0, led 24-17 after the half, and Forte said the offense was unfazed.
"We came in at halftime and said we're not getting stopped, we're only hurting ourselves," he said.
The turning point came on the Bears' first possession after the Jets failed on a fake punt at their own 40. On the next play, Cutler backpedaled and threw a deep bomb to Knox in the end zone to tie the game at 24-24.
"I don't know what they were thinking exactly with that one," Cutler said of the fake play, a dropped pass from Mark Sanchez to Brad Smith. "We had short fields all day with our return game and then stopping that punt. It's so huge."
On the Bears' three scores in the third, they started each drive in Jets
territory. Hester proved why he's the best kick returner of all time with two classic returns.
After a three-and-out by the Jets, Hester took a punt back 38 yards to the Jets' 32, showing his typical, ho-hum Hall of Fame moves. The ball wasn't supposed to go his way, Ryan said, but as Matt Dodge showed us the week before, directional punts are harder than they look on TV.
"We're going in there trying to kick the ball away from that guy," Ryan said. "We tried to do it all day and he got his hands on it. That's when you see how important it is to kick the ball away from that kid."
Two plays later, Cutler found Hester in the front of the end zone with easy separation on cornerback Drew Coleman.
"Just a straight nine route," Hester said. "I think I was one-on-one with the corner, who was playing 10 yards off and kind of set. I was coached when you get in situations like that, try and get around him as fast as you can and get your head back. And Jay threw a great ball."
The Jets came back and scored and they kicked to Hester again. This time he raced upfield for a 40-yard return to the Jets' 49. It took the Bears five plays to score, culminating in Knox's second touchdown catch, a 26-yarder.
"Jay just put it where he couldn't get it," Knox said. "I just had to go up and make another play."
A week after setting the all-time return touchdown record, Hester wagged his finger at the Jets' bench after that return, like a mini Dikembe Mutombo. That was what he was doing, right?
"Nah, there was something on my finger," Hester said. "I was trying to get it off."
Then, he started laughing. Hester's confidence is contagious.
With one more game before the playoffs, and a likely first-round bye, it's starting to look as though Martz was prescient with his "everything is fine" routine during the offensive doldrums of the first half of the season.
The Bears needed time and they got it. Late December is when you want a team to be at its best, and Chicago is certainly peaking.
With a three-year postseason drought ending, the playoff Bears are growing playoff beards. Knox looks positively Amish, while Cutler just looks like, well, himself. It's a clichéd unity bit, but it's kind of fun too. After years of turmoil and assigned blame, it's nice to see the offense having fun.
"As long as we keep winning, our beards will keep growing," Knox said.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
Against an elite defense, the Bears looked formidable in Sunday's win.