By Chris Emma—

CHICAGO (CBS) – Leading the Bears’ final fourth-quarter drive Sunday, Jay Cutler fired a pass off his back foot and across the field. Upon release, the crisp air at Soldier Field was sucked away with a collective inhale of tension.

It seemed to be one of those passes that infamously built Cutler’s reputation, the kind of head-scratching, mind-numbing decision he often makes to cost the Bears a game. He had just done it earlier in the quarter, making a poor read that landed in the arms of Charles Woodson, the eight-time Pro Bowler who termed the infamous “Same old Jay” phrase.

But this pass was caught by Eddie Royal, who moved the Bears into Raiders territory.

Exhale.

Cutler led Chicago on the winning drive of the 22-20 win over Oakland. He was cool as a cucumber, bringing the Bears their first win since November. What made the performance even more important was how Cutler battled through his pulled hamstring, even returning earlier than expected. Remember that silly narrative that Cutler isn’t tough?

“My hat’s off to his toughness, battling through that game,” Bears coach John Fox said of Cutler.

That was the kind of performance Cutler doesn’t receive due credit for, because there’s often a regrettable throw or decision that crumbles it.

On Sunday, Cutler played a gutsy game, maximizing his limited mobility, extending plays with his athleticism and keeping drives alive. One week after the Bears punted 10 times on 10 possessions, Cutler guided his offense to field goal range, where Robbie Gould delivered.

“It’s a big win,” Cutler said. “The guys are excited, coaching staff is excited. We got a good group in there.”

Surely, much of Soldier Field was bracing for Cutler’s costly interception on the final drive. He’s done it time after time before. But this time, he came through. There was a six-yard pass to Matt Forte to start it, a huge throw to Martellus Bennett on fourth-and-5, another catch for Forte and Eddie Royal, plus two more for Marquess Wilson. The Bears were in business, with Gould in position to close it.

Cutler critics were ready to emerge, as they so often do. But the quarterback led his team to a win.

“They threw stones at Jesus, and Jesus was an excellent guy who did a lot of awesome stuff – and they still threw rocks at him,” Bennett said. “How do you think they do us? I’m not perfect. Jesus was, and he got stoned. They throw rocks at us, too.”

Cutler finished Sunday going 28-of-43 for 281 yards, two touchdowns and that one pick, which led to the Raiders taking a 20-19 lead late. At times, he looked injured, making overthrows and struggling with his timing. But for the most part, it was a strong showing.

More importantly for the Bears, Cutler’s return was exactly what the team needed. He makes a depleted team competent and brings the offense stability. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase works well with the quarterback, and the schemes are built to his strengths.

For the most part, Cutler has been excellent this season, outside of a few mistakes. Of course, those mistakes were costly. Clay Matthews picked off Cutler in the season opener, sealing another Packers win at Soldier Field. In Week 2, the Cardinals’ Tony Jefferson marched to the end zone on Cutler’s pick-six, the one that led to his hamstring pull. Woodson’s interception nearly won the Raiders this game.

“Most quarterbacks that have played the game have interceptions,” Fox said. “It’s the body of work around it.”

Cutler’s body of work was key in the Bears’ win. After the Woodson pick, he returned to the sidelines and consulted with Bennett, the intended recipient of the pass, and Gase. They discussed what went wrong, then he flushed it from mind.

One of the best qualities a quarterback can have is a short memory, and that was key for Cutler in regrouping.

“Can’t linger on it, can’t worry on it, because we got a shot,” Cutler said. “Guys are depending on me to go out there and get it done.”

As luck would have it on the Raiders’ drive following Woodson’s interception, Bears linebacker Pernell McPhee got to the backfield on third-and-2 to blow up a run, forcing Oakland to settle for a Sebastian Janikowski field goal. Cutler returned to the field with 2:05 left and loads of pressure on his shoulders.

One mistake on that final drive would’ve tarnished Cutler’s day. He nearly threw the game away, with that dangerous pass thrown off his back foot, but the final score reflected Cutler’s body of work, because he won the Bears this game.

Hats off to Cutler for a gutsy, victorious performance.

Follow Chris on Twitter @CEmma670.