- Jon Greenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Here's the good news: Jay Cutler was still upright and coherent after the game, wearing a lumberjack's beard and, apparently, Steve Harvey's old New Year's Eve suit.
I was a little worried about his health when Cutler answered questions in full sentences, and played along with a reporter's witty retort -- even laughing at the joke, rather than the reporter -- but I didn't see any sign of real damage, mental or physical.
After a fairly meaningless, albeit hard-fought, 10-3 season-ending loss to the Green Bay Packers, it's safe to say everyone associated with the Bears is just glad Cutler is in one piece, mentally and physically.
Heading into his first postseason game since his salad days playing Indiana schoolboy football, Cutler lived through a nightmarish season-ender in frigid Wisconsin, dropping back 40-something times, taking six sacks, throwing two picks and looking like a typical Bears quarterback, rather than a playoff quarterback.
As playoff warm-ups go, this one had the Bears looking like a one-and-done team, starting with the guy under center.
Cutler has been the bellwether for the Bears since coming over from Denver. Like any franchise quarterback, he defines his team. Often he leaves you wondering how good he can be, and conversely, how bad.
The Bears' offense has been notoriously tricky to define this season, looking awful and out of sync, while surprising us by taking care of business when it matters. A 7-2 record since the bye erases doubt that this is a playoff team. Still, one has to wonder how much regular-season success will really matter in two weeks (after the Bears' first-round bye) if the offense can't get into the offense.
The uneven offense is why I wanted to see the Bears play to win this game, to erase doubts going into the bye. What I saw was the offense of the No. 2 team in the NFC playing to win, just not very well.
"We played hard," tight end Greg Olsen said. "We didn't play well, but we played hard."
I winced along with you watching Cutler take hits from a flying Charles Woodson or a hard-charging Clay Matthews and all the other freaks in the Packers' second-ranked scoring defense. And yes, I shook my head as he threw balls into the dirt or over a receiver's head, and struggled to communicate with his coaches in a loud stadium. Cutler threw an interception in the end zone in the third quarter, and another simply near the end zone to end the game.
But re-listening to Cutler's stint at the podium, I've got to say that at the very least, I like his confidence and I don't think this particular performance will be the start of, or the reason for, a quick demise in the playoffs. Of course, it's easier to show poise when you're dodging questions and not A.J. Hawk, but you get my point.
To my finely calibrated ears, Cutler sounds like a playoff quarterback, even if he didn't look like one.
"This doesn't change anything," he said. "As an offense we're still very confident in our ability to score. Tonight they took stuff away from us, but we've got to keep moving forward. We'll look at this one and learn some things like we always do, but we've got bigger things ahead of us."
Yes, Cutler took a lot of hits, which was the very reason to sit him, but I wasn't worried about his durability. He's missed one start in his NFL career, and that came off a cornerback blitz that sent his head bouncing off the turf.
Those things happen.
"There's not a tougher quarterback in the whole NFL," center Olin Kreutz said.
"You know, Jay Cutler is as tough as they came. I don't think they could've sat him if they wanted to today."
When asked if he thought about pulling Cutler in the fourth quarter, Smith got defensive.
"Why would we do that?" he said. "There's a game on the line and we're trying to win the football game. That was never part of the mindset at all."
Toughness aside, Cutler's actual performance left a lot to be desired, and that can't be denied.
Although he's improved significantly from last season's pickfest, Cutler hasn't been able to put together a string of good games this season, always throwing in a stinker to break up the monotony of success. The Bears, even when winning, have mirrored their leader.
Was this another one-game blip or further evidence that he can't be trusted in a tight game in enemy territory? After all, how many big games has Cutler won on the road? How many fingers am I holding up?
And that's the rub. While Cutler and Kreutz both said this game was a chance to operate in a loud, playoff-like atmosphere, it's not as if the Bears thrived in it.
"We needed a game like this, in this atmosphere, because if you really look at it, we haven't had a really loud playoff atmosphere game," Kreutz said.
"Minnesota had to change the stadium, Buffalo was in Toronto. A lot of stadiums we go to are packed with Bears fans. So this game was loud and took some of our communication away and hopefully we can learn a lot from it."
I hate to be a downer here, but isn't it time to stop learning lessons?
Maybe I'm looking at this the wrong way. Maybe after a 7-1 run and talk of a Super Bowl, the Bears' offense needed a wake-up call.
Certainly the top receivers got one. Against a tough defense, like those they'll be facing in the playoffs, Johnny Knox and Devin Hester were targeted 13 times, with only Hester's 16-yard catch to show for it. Knox was constantly slipping against tight coverage, when Cutler wasn't missing him completely, and Hester was practically invisible.
"We didn't change a lot from this game to last game, and they did a really good job of taking away some of our hots and keeping us off-balance in some of our hots," Cutler said of his failure to connect on quick throw options. "They were delaying some of their blitzes and bringing guys. I think there was a stretch where Woodson came about every snap toward the end."
So basically, the Packers watched film and blitzed a lot. As Cutler said, "It's nothing we haven't seen before."
To make matters worse, the Bears were constantly backed up in their own territory, as the Packers' special teams dominated Hester & Co.
Chicago has the best average field position in the league, starting around its 34-yard line.
Of the eight punts the Bears fielded, their average starting position was the 16½-yard line, with the last two coming at their own 3- and 2-yard lines.
It's not easy to shut down the Bears' special teams, but if you do, it's not hard to stymie the offense.
For his part, Smith said offensive coordinator Mike Martz called a game plan designed to win. The Bears certainly didn't call a game to keep Cutler healthy, calling 18 passing plays to five runs in the fourth quarter. But you have to wonder if the starters took the planning, not to mention Smith's history of resting starters with nothing to play for, as signs they weren't going to play the entire game.
Aside from Matt Forte (91 yards rushing, 60 yards receiving), no one on offense looked sharp, as the dropped balls and missed blocks can attest.
"We were trying, competing, we played hard," Olsen said. "I think we made too many mistakes. When you play that good of a defense, they will expose you a little bit if you don't play sound and I think that's pretty much what it came down to."
With two weeks to fine-tune, the Bears won't wallow in their failures. That's not what professional athletes do, certainly not after an 11-win season and recent high-powered performances against Minnesota and the New York Jets. And let's not forget how they did after their last bye week.
"Any time we can give a guy like Mike Martz an extra week, I think it's going to benefit us," Cutler said.
The Bears can only hope those words are true, because Cutler and Martz were brought to Chicago for this very purpose.
The regular season is over, and we have a fortnight of speculation to look forward to. But on Jan. 13 at Soldier Field, we'll get to see if this offense is built for the playoffs or an early vacation.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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