CHICAGO -- Twenty seconds away from a painful regulation loss, the Chicago Bears had first-down-and-desperate. So, the play-call was simple.
"Brandon, you run fast as you can down there and I'll throw it to you. Make a play," Bears quarterback Jay Cutler said. "That's what he did. I just had to buy some time in the pocket, bounce around a little bit and found him. He did a great job of going back for it."
Improvisation doesn't just work at Second City theater. If only all decisions were so easy and so fruitful.
Cutler's 56-yard completion to a leaping, and then running, Brandon Marshall, was a workshop on the fundamentals of a game learned in front yards everywhere. I throw it high, you go up, and good things will happen.
Marshall, who finished with 10 catches for 165 yards, jumped and outmuscled two defensive backs to make the play that no other Bears receiver could make. It's why they traded for him and why he's having the best receiving season in Bears history, and why he's clearly the Bears' most valuable player (Get out of here with that "Cutler is League MVP" nonsense). With one toss, a sure loss had turned into a miracle on grass.
Did Marshall, who practices the power of positive thinking nowadays, think the Bears were going to tie the game and win in overtime?
Uh, yeah. That's like asking if he wore bright cerulean blue pants to the postgame news conference.
"Yes, that's what I thought," he said. "That's exactly what I thought."
Marshall, who said he was insulted with single coverage, ran after the catch, but broke toward the sidelines, getting out of bounds with nine seconds left.
In a game with a few questionable decisions, Cutler and Marshall made the right plays when it counted. Unfortunately, the sure-thing defense looks questionable with a month left.
Robbie Gould went on to hit a 46-yard field goal to tie the game, but the narrative broke off when Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, as was his custom, adroitly drove the Seahawks down the field for a touchdown in overtime as Seattle won, 23-17. Public libraries were louder than Soldier Field as the game ended.
My worries about Cutler's "clutch" play have vanished for the moment. That was a big-time play to his big-time receiver and despite the offense's many shortcomings throughout this game, Cutler made good on his promise.
Now is the time to worry about the defense, which got exposed by a quick quarterback who treated the second half like a college football game, going hard on the read option. A veteran defense that looks more banged-up every game.
The Bears simply couldn't stop Wilson, who had 293 yards passing with two touchdowns, including the winner in overtime, and 71 yards rushing, with 67 coming in the second half, as he begged his coaches to roll with the read-option. Did he think he was back at Wisconsin?
The Bears forced one takeaway, but they had problems with fundamentals, such as wrapping up and tackling. Easier said from the pressbox than on the field, where corralling Marshawn Lynch isn't easy. Lynch had 87 yards on 19 carries, getting extra yards with that Beast Mode gait.
Even worse than the outcome was that three starting defenders left the game. Safety Chris Conte left early with an illness, but the two keys to the defense, Brian Urlacher (hamstring) and Tim Jennings (shoulder), left during the Seahawks' winning drive.
There goes my bid to push this defense into the Hall of Fame this winter. And maybe, if you're feeling cynical, there goes the season.
The Bears' third loss in their past four games illuminated the Bears' present shortcomings and cast some doubt over their playoff viability.
"This is a tough time," Marshall said. "This is the time where it's easy to point fingers at people. The one thing about this organization, this team, this coaching staff, the players, we are going to come together through adversity. Very disappointed, but not discouraged."
That makes one of us.
At 8-4, the Bears and the Packers have the same record, which makes their game at Soldier Field on Dec. 16 even more important. As of now, thanks to Green Bay's earlier win, the Bears are in fifth place, one game ahead of Seattle, in the current playoff picture. But three of their last four games this season are on the road. The Vikings and the unforgiving Metrodome turf, not to mention Adrian Peterson, lurk ominously next week.
"The games are getting more important as you get down the line," Cutler said. "There's no doubt about it. In December football, every game counts. You're trying to get in the playoffs and trying to make a good push. You're trying to get some rhythm going into the last couple games to see where it can take us. The games are starting to add up."
We've been waiting for the offense to jell all season with sporadic results. Against a stingy defense, Cutler had one of his better games, which meant something else was bound to go wrong. Cutler basically played pitch-and-catch with Marshall, who came in getting targeted by Cutler about 40 percent of the time. Cutler also ran the ball with determination and found two Not-Brandon receivers for touchdowns.
Marshall got targeted on 14 of Cutler's 26 attempts and wound up with all but 68 of his yards. With Devin Hester out with a concussion, Earl Bennett didn't play in the second half with his own concussion. In the second quarter, with the Bears up 7-0, he dropped a sure touchdown catch on a Cutler bomb down the right sideline.
The Bears wound up punting and Seattle then tied the game with a 94-yard drive. Cutler blamed the offense for not doing more, but he didn't kill Bennett, who might have suffered his concussion when he got flipped into the end zone on a touchdown pass on the team's first drive, according to the quarterback.
"It happens," Cutler said. "I spun him around a little bit, and it was a tough catch. He is going to say he should have had it. I don't know if he was feeling the effects of that hit down by the goal line or not. It's hard to tell. I won't shy away from him. I know that. I'll keep coming back to him."
Sure enough, in the next drive, the first pass went Bennett's way. Incomplete, but still
The Bears stuck to the running game, but aside from a few good plays, Michael Bush's 15-yard run in the fourth quarter comes to mind, it was a disappointment. Particularly on fourth-and-1 at Seattle's 15-yard line. With the Bears nursing that 7-0 lead, Bush got stopped for no gain on the play, which brings up the situation that divides football. Do you take the points or go with the percentages?
Bears coach Lovie Smith was asked if he regretted the call. He gave a very Lovie answer.
"Every time a decision doesn't work out, I look at it and think that," he said. "Would I do it again? Probably so. Again, you've got to be able to get those fourth-and-shorts."
Demoted tackle Gabe Carimi, making his first start at right guard, put the blame on the offensive line. He wanted the Bears to go for it, and Bush ran his way.
"That's on us," Carimi said. "We need to make that. We need to make that first down. That's on the linemen. When it's fourth-and-inches like that, we should get that every time."
Marshall said he was pushing to go for it too. Cutler said he thought it was a good decision, nothing he wouldn't "second-guess anything." But when asked if it's always a good idea to go for it on fourth-and-short, he might have hinted how he really felt about the call.
"Uh no, I think you've got to play smart," he said. "It depends on how your offensive line is doing, are you running the ball well, whether it's a tight game, whether it's a high-scoring game. There are a lot of things that go into it."
Considering the Bears weren't running the ball and the line is patchwork at best, I bet Cutler wanted the 10-0 lead.
The Seahawks scored on the next drive and once more to end the half with a 10-7 lead. The Bears caught a big break in the third quarter when two Seattle penalties helped the Bears drive 94 yards to take a 14-10 lead on a Cutler pass to Matt Forte.
A decision that might go overlooked was the deep pass Cutler didn't attempt. On third-and-21 with 4½ minutes left in the game, the Bears opted not to pass, letting Forte run before punting with less than four minutes to play. Zack Bowman and Sherrick McManis downed the ball at the Seattle 3 so it looked smart.
But Wilson drove the Seahawks 97 yards to take the lead. He converted two third downs and a fourth down on passes, before finding Golden Tate on a 14-yard pass to take the lead with 24 seconds left. Smith was angry at his defense, which hasn't happened a lot this season.
Where they tired from being on the field so much in the fourth? Smith wasn't playing that.
"Fatigue plays in when you don't get off on third downs, and then you don't get off on fourth downs," Smith said. "You've got to be able to reach down. That's what we've done in those situations, make a play to get off the field."
Yes, Cutler made the play and the defense didn't. It's always something with this team.
I've been consistent in calling this team a Super Bowl contender all season. I didn't think anything short of Cutler getting knocked out for the season would change my opinion, but this loss felt like a turning point. With four games left, it looks like the offense might have to lead this team for anything great to happen.
George Halas help us all.