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Next 2 games watershed for Cutler

Smith's Bears and Kubiak's Texans mirror one another

Dan McNeil

8:36 PM CST, November 8, 2012

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I'm relieved the Bears have concluded the junior varsity portion of their schedule and finally have a worthy opponent Sunday night at Soldier Field. The comedy of errors in Nashville was entertaining, but it's time for a 15-round bout between two legitimate heavyweight contenders.

It's silly to mock a club that's 7-1, but it has been difficult to gauge just how good the Bears are. The Texans, also 7-1, will provide a much-needed barometer.

Lovie Smith's Bears and Gary Kubiak's Texans mirror one another.

Both defenses have been lethal possessing a real appetite for changing the complexion of a game. The Bears have their MVP candidate in ball-punching cornerback Charles Tillman while the Texans have destructive defensive end J.J. Watt.

Both teams have top-shelf running backs. Arian Foster arguably is the best dual threat in the league. Matt Forte has played up to his new contract and Bears fans are screaming for Mike Tice to get him more involved in the passing game.

Both teams stop the run. Houston allows just 82.4 yards per game (second in NFL) to the Bears 88 (sixth).

Pass rush has been a strength for both teams.

Both teams lost to the only really good team they have played, the Packers.

All things considered, it's difficult to imagine anything other than the kind of brawl that's decided by who makes the fewest mistakes.

In that case, it's easier for me to trust Matt Schaub, who's more of a big-armed game manager, than it is Jay Cutler. And that's bothersome.

If somebody would have told you in the winter of 2009 when Jerry Angelo traded for Cutler that this is where we would be with the quarterback in his fourth season here, you wouldn't have believed it. But this is where we are with Cutler, who has been dynamite in fourth quarters — while "guiding" the Bears to the 29th-ranked passing offense in the league.

The next 10 days, with games against the Texans and 49ers, are a watershed for Cutler. It's time for the Bears long-awaited franchise quarterback to step up and define his Bears career.

It has been easy to marvel at the Bears stunning plus-16 turnover margin, seven defensive touchdowns and defensive player of the week/month honors, but there's no way Smith's defense can be expected to sustain that pace for eight more games. Cutler, who posted the most forgettable 130-something rating ever against the Titans last week, has to be the reason the Bears win some of these games.

The Texans aren't likely to be as generous as recent Bears punching bags. Schaub doesn't throw into double coverage recklessly. He chucks the ball away when he has large, angry men chasing him and doesn't have options. The Texans have turned it over only six times all year.

It's true the Texans protect Schaub better than the Bears protect Cutler, but that shouldn't preclude Cutler from playing smart. If he does, and the Bears win more because of him instead of merely with him, that chatter about going to New Orleans won't sound so goofy to me.

If the Bears win despite his performance, it makes sense only to look at the trip to San Francisco — to give Cutler yet another chance to be prove he's who we thought he was going to be.

Special contributor Dan McNeil hosts "The McNeil and Spiegel Show" weekdays from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. on WSCR-AM 670.