Thursday night at Lambeau Field was all about Brett Favre and the legacy of the Green Bay Packers. At least, that was the plan heading into the Thanksgiving showdown against the Bears. The Packers retired Favre's number 4 jersey at halftime, and the franchise brought out some legendary former players to honor the former quarterback.
A different signal-caller had other plans for that spotlight, however. And no, it wasn't current Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Jay Cutler had one of his best games of the entire season, playing mistake-free and leading Chicago to a 17-13 victory. While Favre got all the cheers at half, and Rodgers got his usual spotlight, it was Cutler who had the grin on his face when the clock finally hit zeroes at the end of the fourth quarter.
"I think this has been a confident group all year long," Cutler said of the offense. "I think once we started playing some tight games, winning a few, we have been in a lot of games in the fourth quarter and we've won some and we've lost some. But the theme is that we have always been there, we've always had a shot. This team hasn't really flinched from that moment on. I think coach [John] Fox has been sending the message and guys have been listening and believing in him."
Cutler's statistics on Thanksgiving weren't mind-blowing - 19 of 31 passing, 200 yards, one touchdown - but it was the manner in which he led the Chicago offense that was so important. Though Cutler has one of the strongest right arms in the NFL, the Bears didn't opt to throw vertically too often against the aggressive Green Bay defense. Instead, Chicago countered the Packers ability to blitz the quarterback by getting the ball from Cutler to a receiver as fast as possible.
Quick screens and short routes were a huge part of the Bears offense, and paid major dividends. Like fishing with dynamite, the short throws were easy but efficient. Seven Bears caught passes in the game, and three of them averaged more than 11 yards per reception.
Because he was throwing quickly, Cutler also avoided making mistakes. In four previous games in Green Bay, the Chicago quarterback had thrown three touchdowns compared to 12 interceptions. Not surprisingly, the Bears were winless in those contests. On Thursday, Cutler threw quickly to open receivers and moved his feet well to avoid oncoming rushers. He was only sacked once, while three of his completions went for 20 or more yards, and had no turnovers.
Cutler was at his best when the Bears needed him most. Early in the second quarter, with Chicago trailing by a touchdown, the Bears defense forced a fumble and gave Cutler the ball on the team's own 34-yard line. The quarterback went 4 of 5 on the drive, taking the Bears down the field before hitting Zach Miller for a 3-yard touchdown.
Later in the quarter, after the Bears took possession with less than two minutes to go in the first half, Cutler completed 3 of 4 passes to take Chicago into scoring range. The final pass on that drive was a 19-yard throw and run from Cutler to Marquees Wilson that put the ball at the Green Bay 1-yard line. The very next play, Jeremy Langford ran it across the goal line to give the Bears a lead they'd never relinquish.
"[Jay is] resilient," Miller said of his quarterback. "I thought he made some huge plays on third down. He stayed in the pocket well. His leadership and confidence are so high right now. It is awesome playing with him."
In the second half, Cutler came up with more big plays, including a 21-yard pass to Marc Mariani on a 3rd-and-10 from the Chicago 35-yard line. The play extended a drive, allowing the Bears offense to use more clock while keeping Rodgers and company on the sideline.
The win concluded a whirlwind week for Cutler. On Sunday, he faced his former team, the Denver Broncos, for the first time ever. The next day, his wife delivered the family's third child, a daughter named Saylor. And on Thursday, he took the spotlight away from Favre, playing well in leading the Bears to a win he and his teammates were surely thankful for.