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Maybe yesterday was the day. Maybe on a cold blustery day in Cleveland Jay Cutler had a breakthrough. Or maybe it happened while he was out with groin and ankle injuries or when he returned to practicing full steam this past week. The main thing was this: The breakthrough had nothing to do with his performance on the field.
Cutler showed real gratitude after the Bears' 38-31 victory. Even better, he displayed some humility - the kind that goes a long way with teammates and fans alike.
The quarterback also revealed that earlier in the week, after receiving medical clearance to play, he sought out meetings with his offensive linemen and with skill players such as Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte. He wanted to make sure everyone was on board with him replacing super-backup Josh McCown.
Star athletes have to walk a fine line. They have to have the rock-solid confidence to shrug off things like brutal interceptions, to know that no matter how badly things go early, they will come back later and get the job done. But if there isn't some humility to go with it, if confidence become arrogance, then critical lessons go unlearned.
Cutler throws the ball as well as any quarterback in the game not named Rodgers. With just a little better mindset, he will be even more dangerous. Maybe on Sunday he turned the corner. We'll see in Philadelphia next Sunday and at Soldier Field against the Packers the week after that in the regular-season finale.
As for the game itself, well, it was actually the sort of three-phase triumph that Lovie's best teams used to put together with regularity.
Devin Hester had three strong returns and the special teams were otherwise solid other than a couple mediocre Adam Podlesh punts. The defense grabbed some turnovers, scored (Zack Bowman!) and got stops when the Bears had to have them. They also benefited from some Browns penalties and many dropped passes. And on offense, once again the Bears' big receivers made even bigger plays.
Chris Conte blew that last play (Josh Gordon's long touchdown catch) but he spent the rest of the game intimidating the hell out of Browns' star young receiver. During the first 55 minutes, there were almost a half-dozen plays where Gordon either refused to fully extend himself to try to catch passes in the middle of the field or he simply dropped the ball.
And say this for Conte: He was there ready to blast Gordon on virtually every one of those plays. Going into the game, Bears fans could have expressed doubts about Conte's ability to intimidate high school receivers. But somehow Conte got in Gordon's head and stayed there on Sunday.
Martellus Bennett's fumble (which was returned for a touchdown) was a potential crusher. It gave the Browns a seven-point lead - a lead they still had with several minutes gone in the fourth quarter. But the Bears defense bailed him out with the aforementioned stops. It turns out that was Bennett's first lost fumble ever in the NFL.
And it happened because the big tight end, who otherwise had a strong game with six catches for 71 yards, was trying to do a little extra. He knew he was going to have to stretch out to get a first down and it was clear he was carrying the ball a bit further away from his body than usual in anticipation of stretching the ball out in front of him as he went down. Instead, a Brown defender hopped on his back and punched it away.
Two more things: What a signing by Phil Emery to pick up Jeremiah Ratliff about six weeks ago after the Cowboys released him. The four-time Prow Bowl defensive tackle was a force on Sunday, pressuring the passer and making numerous strong plays against the run.
And from the "never doubt Marc Trestman's play-calling" file: The Bears ran that irritating end-around to Alshon Jeffery again early in the game. Not surprisingly, the play lost three yards. The beautiful thing though was that the play set up those delightful misdirection pitches to Forte later in the game - the ones on which the Bears running back gained about half of his 127 yards. Those plays started with fake speed sweep hand-offs to Jeffery going one way and then were capped off by Forte taking pitches the other way through big holes.
Sometimes the great play-callers call plays that probably won't work early to set up ones they know will work later on.
Speaking of later, it is seriously late in the season, and the Bears are still in the running for a divisional title. It is feeling like this team might enjoy a little breakthrough as well.
Jim "Coach" Coffman is our man on Mondays. He welcomes your comments.
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