Jay Cutler has look of playoff QB
He shook off a rough first half to lead Bears when they needed him most
CHICAGO -- Rex Ryan started in on his defense at first, then backpedaled a tad to properly credit Jay Cutler, who had just bombed the New York Jets for three touchdowns in a quarter to detonate a 38-34 Chicago Bears explosion at Soldier Field.
"We couldn't stop a nosebleed then," Ryan said. "It would have been easy if it was just one guy's mistakes or whatever, but you have to give them credit. [Cutler] made some big plays against us. When Cutler is hot, he's as good as there is."
Cutler certainly proved that by recovering from a horrid first half to carve up the Jets for three TDs in a third-quarter onslaught highlighted by the quarterback firing scoring strikes on two of his first three throws of the second half. The performance gave a glimpse of what the Bears envisioned getting from Cutler when they traded multiple draft picks to acquire him.
More importantly, Cutler flashed the look of the type of quarterback Chicago will need in the playoffs: One who can overcome adversity and rally the team from behind quickly when the stakes are highest.
Cutler hadn't displayed those qualities most of his tenure with the Bears, although he's wowed observers with tremendous physical attributes in becoming the first quarterback in team history to pass for more than 3,000 yards in consecutive seasons. So it's unclear whether Cutler can build on his rebound against a Jets defense that entered the game ranked fifth in both total defense and scoring defense.
But the performance makes for an encouraging start, and provides optimism about the Bears' chances in the postseason with Cutler under center.
Cutler became the first Bears quarterback since 1995 to throw three touchdown passes in one quarter.
"It kind of shows the type of team we have," tight end Greg Olsen said. "Today, it was Jay. Other days, it's been other guys coming up big for us. Things are gonna go bad. Things are not always gonna go as planned. You just have to hang in there, adjust and don't let it mess with you. You just keep going forward, and look what happened. We played well in the second half and beat a very good team."
The team couldn't say it played well in the first two quarters, especially in regard to Cutler. Trying to connect on a pass to Earl Bennett down the seam, Cutler watched as backup safety Dwight Lowery intercepted his first throw of the second quarter, and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown to give the Jets a 14-10 lead.
"I put us in the hole with the pick-six," Cutler said.
The quarterback then fired incomplete on five of his next seven throws to finish the half with a passer rating of 43.2 on 7-of-14 passing.
"I was definitely concerned," Bears coach Lovie Smith said.
In the locker room at halftime, according to Bennett, Cutler was "cool [and] just calm" in working through the first-half struggles.
"The thing was we just needed to get on track," Bennett said. "What he showed today is that he's a great leader. [When he struggles], he's ready to get back out there and make it happen."
Center Olin Kreutz figures the entire offense shares in the blame for the way Cutler performed in the first half. The offensive line allowed a Marcus Dixon sack in the second quarter, Cutler was called for a delay-of-game penalty and Chris Williams was flagged twice for false starts.
Offensive coordinator Mike Martz didn't help with the play calling. The Bears ran the ball eight times in the first quarter -- including four run calls on the team's first five plays -- and just three times in the second quarter for 1 yard.
"The whole offense had a bad second quarter," Kreutz said. "From the second quarter on, I think we lost some momentum, and we weren't executing. It always looks like it's just the quarterback, and usually it's not. All year we've stuck together. All year we've said we're just gonna keep improving, and that's what we did. We came in at halftime, said, 'Let's do our assignments,' and we went back out and played."
Cutler said the exotic blitz schemes employed by the Jets caused some confusion. But once Martz, Cutler and the Bears caught on, the offense exploded. Cutler completed 6 of 7 passes in the third quarter for 117 yards, and by the end of the quarter his passer rating had improved from the 42.3 rating after the first two quarters to 116.1
Cutler completed 13 of 25 passes for 215 yards, and also contributed a rushing touchdown in the second quarter.
"It got a little confusing up there," Cutler said. "They show a lot of crazy looks. Once we -- once I -- settled down 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. We knew our speed would be hard for them to keep up. When they're face-guarding like that, I'm going to put it up and let the receiver make a play."
Cutler did just that on both of his touchdown passes to Johnny Knox, who finished with a game-high 92 yards on four receptions. Knox leads the Bears with 51 catches for 960 yards and five touchdowns.
Cutler's 26-yard TD to Knox with 6:06 left in the third quarter went down as the quarterback's 50th touchdown pass with the Bears.
"He's just been playing outstanding football," Smith said. "You expect that, though. You want your playmakers to step up when you're behind and you need it. It always starts with the quarterback."
Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.