The quarterbacks didn't want to make it into their duel but that's what Sunday's meeting at Soldier Field came down to — Jay Cutler and Philip Rivers squaring off in a showdown of gunslingers.
After the Bears prevailed 31-20 over Cutler's former rival in the AFC West, they are fully focused on what the franchise's future could look like without the franchise quarterback. A team that has been blessed with terrific health since the start of 2010 is reeling as Cutler suffered a broken thumb on his right throwing hand at the end of an interception midway through the fourth quarter.
Cutler was blocked to the ground by linebacker Donald Butler and landed on his right hand after hustling more than 50 yards downfield on Antoine Cason's interception. There is fear he could miss significant time — perhaps the remainder of the regular season — which would lead the Bears to Caleb Hanie, who has thrown 14 regular-season passes and had a rally come up short against the Packers in the NFC championship game last season.
Officially, the Bears said nothing about Cutler's injury Sunday night, but he's likely to miss six to eight weeks.
Without the Pro Bowl wide receiver and tight end that were on the other sideline, the Bears proved they can pack as much firepower. Cutler outmatched Rivers, helping propel the Bears to 7-3 with their fifth straight victory, keeping pace with the Lions for the top wild-card spot in the NFC.
The victory marked the third consecutive game the Bears have scored 30 points, the first time they've done that since Weeks 5 through 7 of the 1995 season. They've scored 30 points or more in six of the 10 games this season but now face a massive change on offense.
"We feel good," Cutler said in his news conference when he didn't appear with anything covering his hand. "We've just got to keep going."
Cutler completed 18 of 31 passes for 286 yards and two touchdowns. But it's the one interception everyone is going to talk about.
Wide receiver Johnny Knox, who caught a 24-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, slipped and fell on an in-breaking route. It made for an easy pick for Cason, who raced 64 yards along the Bears sideline before running back Matt Forte pushed him out after Cutler pursued.
"Maybe Jay's biggest play of the game came on that interception, buying time for Matt," said coach Lovie Smith, who had no way of knowing what he would soon find out. "Who would have thought we'd be talking about Matt and Jay on a defensive play they made?"
Everyone is now. It was just the third pick in six games for Cutler. But Cutler and Forte prevented a score with Cason going out at the 16-yard line and the Bears leading by 11 and 9:51 remaining. Three plays later, Major Wright got an interception for the third straight game, picking off Rivers in the end zone.
The Chargers wound up with no yards on offense in the fourth quarter while the Bears controlled the ball. Rivers was 21 of 31 for 280 yards and two touchdowns, and he completed seven passes to Vincent Jackson for 165 yards as the big receiver gave Charles Tillman fits.
Tight end Antonio Gates added four receptions for 63 yards, but the Bears got two interceptions and Tillman stripped running back Ryan Mathews, giving the defense enough takeaways to survive despite a subpar pass rush. The injury-ravaged Chargers (4-6), missing three starters on the offensive line, have lost five straight.
Cutler directed touchdown drives on four consecutive possessions from the second quarter into the third quarter. There was a span from the second quarter into the fourth quarter where the offense converted seven consecutive third downs.
While Forte and Marion Barber combined for 82 yards on 27 rushes, Roy Williams had five receptions for 62 yards and Earl Bennett made three catches for 75 yards to go with the big plays from Knox.
"Matt has been getting a lot of attention and today the receivers … we had to step up and make plays when we needed to and we did," Bennett said. "We don't get as much respect, but I think there are a lot of guys in our group who are just as good as (Jackson)."
Plenty was made about the Cutler-Rivers storyline. Afterward, Cutler chatted with the guy he had said in the past he didn't care for a lot.
"I told him good luck the rest of the way, stay healthy," Cutler said.
It's Cutler's health that's the big question now.
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