By Dan Bernstein- Senior Columnist

(CBS) A must-win became a just-won, but not without a cost.

The Bears could not have afforded a loss to a divisional opponent, especially not at home, and with Jay Cutler returning to action. The Vikings were under-manned, missing Percy Harvin, the most dynamic talent in their short-passing game. To drop this one would be to stare into the season’s abyss.

After consecutive failures against superior foes had demoralized everyone involved, drowned optimism and dampened postseason dreams, some comfort food was needed beyond Thanksgiving leftovers for a team that just had been exposed as something less than it thought it was.

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The final score alone – 28-10 — would suggest a romp, and the 25-3 first half portended two quarters of warm gravy, but it wasn’t quite like that on a day that saw five Bears starters knocked out with injuries. Excitement about improving to 8-3 is tempered by what we know the coming days will bring — sorting through the various diagnoses, timetables and predictable Halas Hall smokescreens. Such things happen, however, and roster depth matters. Next guy up.

Just as the offensive line appeared to have been repaired, two interior players exited. Recently-promoted guard Chris Spencer hurt his knee, then Lance Louis did the same. Gabe Carimi had just been supplanted by Jonathan Scott at right tackle, but was forced into action at guard. Even little-used Edwin Williams saw his first action, but protection held. Somewhere, Chilo Rachal regrets his childish freakout.

We were reminded exactly how much Cutler’s raw talent compensates for deficiencies elsewhere, as if we needed to be. All day he fit laser throws into tiny spaces, after keeping plays alive with his feet, scrambling out of trouble and rolling away from pressure.

We were reminded that Brandon Marshall is a receiver unlike any this city has ever seen, as he caught 12 passes for 92 yards, improving his sparkling season totals to 81 and 1017, on pace to shatter franchise records that have been embarrassingly unimpressive for far too long.

And we were reminded that real life in this league is the brutal game of attrition and subsequent adjustment, even as things are going well.

Matt Forte hurt his ankle again. Charles Tillman left with a turned ankle of his own. Devin Hester suffered a concussion early and was held out.

It looked like it was going to be the kind of 2012 Bears game so many fans have enjoyed, as they exploit turnovers, make big defensive plays, and watch Cutler play catch with Marshall. Fun, fun, fun.

Then football happened, and it became a matter of keeping the clock moving, avoiding mistakes, and getting out of there before another starter went down or Adrian Peterson ran wild.

It had to end in a win, and it did, coming after two weeks of sour stomachs, questions and recriminations, as conversations about New Orleans hotel reservations devolved into talk of demotions, concussions and play-calling decisions.

Beating Minnesota at home doesn’t reset everything to the happier time of three weeks ago, but the alternative was the unthinkable. Concerns remain.

Lovie Smith’s team responded to adversity with a positive result, shoring up an identity that was eroding, and could have been washed away entirely. They reestablished more solid footing in their climb to the playoffs. Cutler seems to be healthy.

It’s hard to celebrate relief, but it’s better than misery.

bernstein 90x130 Bernstein: Bears Survive Brutal Afternoon

Dan Bernstein

Dan Bernstein joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995, and has been the co-host of Boers and Bernstein since 1999. Read more of Bernstein’s columns, or follow him on Twitter: @dan_bernstein.

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