The Falcons stopped the Bears’ speedy receivers from running past them. Playing zone, they forced Cutler to take what the defense gave.
The problem was the quarterback took nearly everything, rolling up 312 yards and a passer rating of 107.8, marking the fourth time he’s generated a rating of 100 or better in his last six regular-season outings dating back to 2010. Cutler improved to 23-0 (including the playoffs) when his passer rating is 100-plus.
But instead of re-living plays he made, just minutes after the win, Cutler lamented the ones he didn’t.
“We left some out there,” Cutler said. “We started out pretty good. But we’ve just got to get better in the red zone. We’ve got to hammer out some of these details. We left 14 [or] 21 points on the board.”
The Bears definitely missed one potential touchdown in the second quarter, when Cutler rolled right on a misdirection play that appeared to fool the Atlanta defense, which left tight end Kellen Davis wide open.
Running to his right, Cutler threw back to Davis on the left side. But the ball sailed over the tight end’s head. As soon as Cutler released the pass, he knew he’d misfired, and continued to run off the field as the field goal unit began to come off the sidelines.
“Those are the ones that are layups,” Cutler said. “You miss them, and you wish you could have them back. It’s unfortunate. You’ve got to make those happen. You’ve got to make [them] count when you get down there. It’s a shame.”
With the ball on the Atlanta 8 and the Bears holding a 13-3 lead, it was the perfect opportunity for Cutler to sink the Falcons. Instead, the Bears settled for a 26-yard field goal from Robbie Gould.
The Bears converted just 1 of 3 opportunities in the red zone, leaving Cutler, running back Matt Forte, and receiver Roy Williams all mentioning improvement in that area as one of the team’s most important objectives heading into next week’s game against the New Orleans Saints.
“We needed to put points on the board,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “One of our captains -- Jay Cutler -- was outstanding throughout. I just like what he did [in] leading the offense.”
The showing against the Falcons played out much differently than Cutler’s last meaningful appearance at Soldier Field, a 21-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC title game, which ended in a storm of controversy over the quarterback’s sprained knee.
“I think he was just focused on starting the new year, and leaving all the stuff about last year and the playoffs behind him,” said Forte, who caught five of Cutler’s passes for 90 yards, including a 56-yard TD in the second quarter. “He was making his reads out there, throwing the ball, and putting us in perfect position to make plays.”
Cutler completed passes to eight different receivers, with five of them -- Forte, Williams, Devin Hester, Johnny Knox, and Davis -- averaging at least 11.5 yards per reception. Hester and Knox averaged 20 yards per grab, in part because Cutler delivered the ball in places that allowed the receivers to take advantage of their run-after-catch ability.
“They were gonna try to keep it in front of them, and just tackle us, and hopefully limit [our] big plays,” Cutler said. “We’ve got a lot of speed out there, and I think defenses know that. We’ve got some guys that can flat out run, and if you want to come up and bump them, you’d better have some track guys, too.”
Cutler absorbed five sacks, took six official quarterback hits, and threw a fourth-quarter interception that was returned for a touchdown by Kroy Biermann. Still, teammates marveled at the quarterback’s resilience.
“He stayed in there; hung in there,” said Williams, who caught four passes for 55 yards. “He took some hits, and was delivering the ball where it needed to be. He did a great job today.”
But obviously it didn’t meet Cutler’s standards.
Interestingly, coming into Sunday’s contest, Cutler’s teams were 0-4 over his career when he was sacked five times or more in a game. In those outings, the quarterback posted passer ratings of 95.5, 40.7, 69.4 and 43.5.
So despite taking five sacks, Cutler lit up the Falcons for his 15th career 300-yard passing game in a dominating victory.
“Protection-wise, those guys did a heck of a job for me. If we can get that level from those guys, continue to get better and build on that, we’re gonna be pretty good I think,” Cutler said. “We still have to play up to the defense’s level. They’re still carrying us.”