TORONTO -- Chicago gripped jubilation tightly, holding it back for something truly worthy of celebrating hard.
The Bears escaped the winless Buffalo Bills 22-19 at the Rogers Centre, delivering on promises for more offensive balance, better play calling from coordinator Mike Martz, in addition to improvements in protection, consistency on third downs and fewer mistakes from quarterback Jay Cutler.
But let's face it: Chicago isn't a division-winning, playoff-caliber team. The fact the club knows that, too, gives it a better chance of developing into that type of team in the second half of the season.
"We're halfway through the season right now, and we haven't peaked yet," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "We could talk about each position, and we'll talk about things we need to improve upon. Coming out of the bye, we need to get that first win."
Chicago accomplished that by shoring up several problem areas of the past, while providing some eyesores along the way.
Having exhaustively discussed the need to run the ball for the two weeks leading into Sunday's game, the Bears rushed more Sunday (31 times) than their previous two games combined (30), producing just 105 yards, but a more balanced offense (31 rushes, 30 passes).
There's no hiding the Bears' struggles against the worst run defense in the league, a Bills unit that allowed 188.7 yards per game heading into Sunday. With Cutler's contribution (five runs for 39 yards) on scrambles taken out of the equation, the Bears, who utilized Matt Forte, Chester Taylor, Earl Bennett and Devin Hester as runners, mustered just 66 yards.
Forte knows the group didn't execute the way the Bears hoped, but pointed out the rushing attack's effect on the passing game.
"The past couple of games when we didn't run the ball that much, the pass kind of sputtered," Forte said. "We need to run the ball to establish that run, control the clock, keep the other offense off the field and help our passing game go. It's about establishing the run so the passing game can work. If we don't establish the run, they'll just sit back there and wait for us to pass."
Buffalo couldn't do that. The diversity of the offensive attack led to Cutler completing passes to eight different receivers for a passer rating of 97.6. In addition Cutler suffered only one sack, after having sustained 19 over his previous three outings headed into the contest, as the offense converted 58 percent on third down, 75 percent in the red zone, and scored on all three of the team's goal-to-go situations.
A healthier offensive line played a significant role. With Roberto Garza returning from arthroscopic knee surgery to man the right guard spot, the Bills were credited with just one official hit on Cutler outside of Spencer Johnson's third-quarter sack.
Cutler said Sunday was the most comfortable he has seen the offensive line all season, adding he would like the current group -- comprised of Garza, Olin Kreutz, Chris Williams, Frank Omiyale and J'Marcus Webb -- to provide his protection through the team's stretch run.
"I'd like to stick with these guys for the rest of the year, absolutely. We kind of shuffled those guys around, had a few injuries, had a few setbacks," Cutler said. "But I think this group right here is the group we'd like to make a push with, and make a run with. We've got some young guys. We've got Garza in there helping [rookie Webb] out. Chris [Williams] is really coming into his role in the left guard spot. Olin is kind of controlling the whole thing. I think this is the most comfortable they've felt."
Garza, meanwhile, seemed pleased with the improvements made along the offensive line, but kept things in perspective.
"Somehow, we've found ways to make mistakes and not quite get it done. We're gonna look at the film and correct the mistakes," Garza said. "At the end of the day, to win the football game is what counts. We're working harder every single day. We've still got a lot of stuff to improve on, man. We'll get through that."
Part of doing that means taking a proactive approach to every facet of the game, which is what Cutler displayed after a third-quarter sack that caused Chicago's lone turnover of the game. For the body-language peepers, Cutler walked to the sideline and slammed his helmet down in front of the team's bench in disgust.
Rather than hang his head in disappointment, Cutler immediately called for printouts of pictures of the play.
"I just wanted to see exactly what was going on to see if they brought anybody that I didn't think they did," Cutler explained. "We worked it out. It was nothing we weren't prepared for by any means."
Defensively, the Bears allowed 340 yards and let Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick convert 63 percent of third downs. The club didn't express concern about the various breakdowns because the Bears forced three turnovers, with two of them playing significant roles in the outcome of the game.
Down by five in the fourth quarter, Tim Jennings intercepted Fitzpatrick to give Chicago possession at the Bills' 23-yard line with nine minutes remaining. Six plays later, Cutler hit Bennett for the go-ahead 2-yard touchdown.
"We didn't play as well as we have," Smith said. "Turnovers and takeaways by us really kept us in it, and kind of sealed it up at the end."
Chicago quietly celebrated the victory Sunday in a dark, cramped locker room in the bowels of the Rogers Centre, knowing it needs to make significant strides offensively and defensively if it wants to finish the season in serious contention for a postseason spot.
More than anything, the Bears appeared relieved, yet encouraged by the momentum generated after the bye week with Sunday's victory.
"We're 5-3. I don't think we're exactly where we want to be. I think we're definitely getting there," Cutler said. "I think defense is keeping us alive, getting turnovers, getting us good field position. As long we keep coming on offensively and catch up to the defense, I think we're gonna be a really good team come Sundays."
Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.