By Adam Hoge-
SOLDIER FIELD (CBS) The Bears will continue to hear from the doubters this week.
They’ll say the Bears didn’t deserve to win the game. They’ll say Jay Cutler is still too inconsistent. They’ll say the offensive line isn’t good enough.
But guess what? The Bears are still 6-1.
Sunday’s 23-22 win over the lowly Carolina Panthers won’t go down in the history books as a memorable Chicago Bears victory, but it was a victory, and that’s what matters.
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In the turbulent, always-changing, week-to-week NFL, every team — including the best teams — go through bad weeks. They come out slow against awful football teams at home, they make mistakes all game long, and they drive their fans crazy the entire day.
But the good teams still win. And that’s what the Bears did Sunday.
“During the course of the year, you’re going to go through games like this when it’s tough,” head coach Lovie Smith said after the game. “You’ve got to really just fight to get a win, but the good teams, at the end, find a way to win – like this – when you didn’t play your best ball for 60 minutes.”
There were points Sunday at Soldier Field where the Panthers looked like the better team, but only because the Bears were playing so poorly. Cam Newton was still missing plenty of throws and while the Bears defense was slugging its way through its worst performance of the season, Carolina was still settling for field goals.
The Bears just needed some kind of momentum. They got that when tight end Kellen Davis — of all people — went up and snagged a Jay Cutler bullet in the end zone to give the Bears some life with 6:52 left in the game. Trailing 19-14, there was suddenly some energy in Soldier Field. The defense looked jacked up to take the field and fans were into the game again.
“That’s as loud as I’ve heard it in a long time,” Lovie Smith said.
One play later, the Bears had the lead. It seemed inevitable the Panthers would make the kind of mistake they have been known for during their current 1-6 campaign, and that came when they decided to pass on first down while protecting the lead. Newton threw slightly high and Steve Smith slipped on the turf, leaving Tim Jennings with nothing but a clear view of the football and a clear path to the end zone.
A franchise-record sixth return touchdown of the season for the Bears. In only seven games.
“That happens a lot around here,” Jay Cutler said. “I think we are getting a little bit used to it. We knew something was going to happen and those guys were going to make some play for us and they did.”
One might think the offense sometimes waits too much for the defense to make a big play, but in Sunday’s case, it seemed like the defense needed a jolt from the offense to make it happen. And it did. The momentum shift was big enough that when the Panthers marched down the field and took the lead back, Cutler had enough confidence to complete 6-of-7 passes on the final drive to allow Robbie Gould to win it with a 41-yard field goal.
But the doubters will ask why it took so long to get going against a bad football team. It’s a fair question.
“It would be easy for me to say that, given what the statistics say about (playing after Monday night games), but I can’t,” Smith said. “We didn’t play well. I didn’t get the team ready to play for whatever reason. We’ll be in this situation again this year and we just have to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
And that’s why getting the win was so important. A loss wouldn’t have ended the Bears season by any means. It wouldn’t have meant they weren’t a first-place worthy football team. But it also wouldn’t have given the Bears the experience they’ll need down the road to gut out a close win when they need it.
Take 2010 for example. A lot of people forget the Bears lost October home games to the Seahawks and Redskins that year on back-to-back weekends. They weren’t able to pull-out wins in those poor performances, losing both games by three points. And what happened in the NFC Championship Game when adversity struck and they were losing in the fourth quarter with Jay Cutler on the sideline? You had Mike Martz calling end-arounds on 3rd-and-3, that’s what happened.
And Mike Tice’s play calling Sunday shouldn’t be overlooked. It was confusing for most of the day, but he changed things on the last possession of the third-quarter, mixing in short routes with running plays. That resulted in Cutler hitting 14 of his last 16 pass attempts, all short ones, and the Bears moved the football consistently for the first time since they scored a touchdown in the first quarter.
Look, there’s no question this offense needs to get better. Tice is clearly still figuring out a balance and in all honesty, the unit is holding back a Super Bowl caliber defense. But it’s games like this that can go a long way toward getting the offense to click.
In some ways, a letdown made sense for the defense, but the offense hasn’t been playing well enough to not attack the week of preparation and come out firing at 100 percent.
“Lucky enough we got out of there with a win, but the first half is nothing to be proud of,” Cutler said.
It wasn’t. But it was a valuable learning experience. And the Bears still won.
6-1 with plenty of room to improve. Watch out.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.