McCown, Jeffery have Bears looking like playoff team

Red-hot combination emerges on frigid night

Conventional wisdom said throw the ball away and take the field goal.

So, naturally, Bears quarterback Josh McCown took his chances. December in the NFL is no time for the timid, and the Bears arrived Monday night at Soldier Field intent on seizing every opportunity.

They had the ball on the Cowboys 25-yard line with 17 seconds left in the first half of a convincing 45-28 victory. Instead of taking the safe route with a 17-14 lead, McCown lofted the ball into the right corner of the end zone to a spot only 6-foot-3 wide receiver Alshon Jeffery could get it.

"That,'' coach Marc Trestman said, "was a real turning point.''

Of the game — and perhaps the Bears' season.

Jeffery leaped between two defensive backs and came down with his latest evidence of greatness. By now, the most surprising thing about Jeffery's touchdown catch was that anybody was surprised. The most telling thing about McCown's daring pinpoint pass was how it reflected a quarterback playing with confidence his team rode all the way back into playoff contention.

Get your No. 17 and No. 12 Bears jerseys now before they run out, Chicagoland Christmas shoppers. In front of a national television audience, the duo of Pro Bowl-bound Jeffery and "Monday Night" McCown emerged as the NFL's hottest combination on a night ideal for ice fishing.

The temperature at kickoff was 8 degrees with a whipping 14 mph wind that made it feel like minus-9, but the heavily layered crowd of 56,644 won't regret sitting through this one. Funny how winning big warms the soul.

On the day of Ditka in Illinois, the Bears authored an evening to remember that made Da Coach proud, gang. It was one of those postcard nights in the city, with skyscrapers alight to form "89" in tribute of Mike Ditka, whose number finally was retired at halftime. Wearing a No. 89 jersey, Chairman George McCaskey barked emotionally like a guy who will wake up with laryngitis: "Mike, this was a long time coming."

Nobody would disagree. Ditka, who fought back tears earlier on the radio, kept his composure. But then his tear ducts might have been frozen.

"I've been living the dream for 74 years," Ditka said.

You could forgive Bears fans for thinking they were dreaming as they watched the same team that lost to the last-place Vikings and Rams resemble a playoff threat. Scoring on every possession but the final kneel-down pleased Trestman, but not as much as the resolve his team showed after the Vikings loss.

Trestman linked the Bears' resilience to players attending the team Christmas party the previous Monday night and a group spending its day off helping tornado victims in Washington, Ill.

"Nobody felt sorry for ourselves,'' Trestman said. "I was proud of our guys.''

The weather and shadow of Ditka provided all the elements for a throwback game. The Bears threw the ball around like a modern NFL offense anyway. For all the grief Trestman took after his ill-fated second-down field-goal decision, he deserves as much credit for devising this game plan. He mixed in misdirection and used route combinations to create Texas-sized openings in a Cowboys secondary that got colder by the quarter.

Oblivious to the wind and cold, McCown played so well that by halftime, Twitter exploded with suggestions the Bears let Jay Cutler walk into free agency. As much as McCown arguably has outplayed Cutler in Trestman's user-friendly system, be careful not to overreact to a hot streak by a 34-year-old veteran. Cutler's seven games under Trestman hardly provided enough bad evidence to cut bait on one of the league's most physically gifted quarterbacks.

Cutler remains enigmatic but still is the guy who brings the Bears closer to winning a Super Bowl when healthy — though McCown sure has enlivened the argument. McCown's latest Rich Gannon impersonation included four touchdown passes and a career-high 141.9 passer rating.

McCown's success allows the Bears to continue to show caution with Cutler. A short week makes it wise for McCown to start against the Browns and take advantage of the momentum he created on his best night as a Bear. McCown can be the right quarterback for now and Cutler the right quarterback for later. What a nice problem.

"There's no change in the plan,'' Trestman insisted.

McCown leading the offense to 45 points and 490 yards in a must-win game simply made Josh-vs.-Jay a fun debate — and so is whether the Bears can win the division despite their iffy defense. It sure beats debating second-down field goals.

"I still can't feel my toes,'' McCown said an hour later.

Numb or not, the Bears will wake up Tuesday feeling very much alive again in the NFC North.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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