Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Jay Cutler was upbeat after the Bears’ 40-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night, and with good reason.
He completed 14 of 24 passes for 194 yards with three touchdowns and one interception for a passer rating of 106.6. More important, his team clinched the NFC North title, guaranteeing Cutler his first playoff appearance and a chance to shed the label as a quarterback who never led a team to the postseason.
‘‘It was a good win,’’ Cutler said Wednesday. ‘‘I mean, just the way the offense played, the way the defense played, the way the special teams played. With everything going into that game, and for us to respond the way we did, I thought it was a really good sign.’’
Cutler might be surprised to know there was as much focus on what he didn’t do against the Vikings as what he did do. More likely, he’s not surprised at all. Although quarterbacks are frequent targets of criticism, Cutler has become a lightning rod among lightning rods among national media.
‘‘I can identify with him a little bit,’’ joked Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who also has elicited strong opinions throughout his career.
It’s not that all criticism of Cutler is unwarranted. He likely would be the first to admit his performance against the Vikings was far from perfect. It’s just that the timing seemed strange given what he and his teammates accomplished, which is more than many of those critical of Cutler ever thought possible.
The primary criticisms of Cutler relate to his decision-making and fundamentals. Everybody has seen him throw enough errant passes off his back foot or force enough passes into triple coverage to understand where it’s coming from, although Martz insists he’s more than satisfied with Cutler’s development in both areas.
‘‘He’s made terrific progress, and there are times where he’s not where he needs to be yet, obviously,’’ Martz said. ‘‘That just doesn’t happen in one year. Over the long haul, all that gets better and better. You don’t go in and do it. It doesn’t happen [overnight].’’
The Bears have won six of their last seven games, and Cutler wasn’t any more responsible than anybody else for the 36-7 loss to the New England Patriots on Dec. 12. With only Sunday’s game against the New York Jets at Soldier Field and the season finale at Green Bay left on the schedule, the Bears (10-4) likely will finish with 11 or perhaps 12 victories, far exceeding reasonable expectations.
Given the way the season started, with a new offense and a full-fledged crisis along the offensive line, the offense has made significant strides.
‘‘We’re not really too concerned with what analysts and so-called experts say,’’ tight end Greg Olsen said. ‘‘We won 40-14. Obviously, [Cutler] did a lot right. If you want to find one or two plays, I can pick through Hall of Famers — name them — and pick plays that didn’t go well for them. It’s just the way it is. There are always people who want to bring other people down when they’re doing well.’’
Some players felt that ‘‘Monday Night Football’’ analysts Ron Jaworski and Jon Gruden were too tough on Cutler during the broadcast after they likely heard about it from friends and family.
‘‘It doesn’t make sense,’’ veteran center Olin Kreutz said. ‘‘In the booth, you’ve got two guys who are supposedly quarterback experts, and they’re going to try to criticize Jay. We don’t worry about those guys. Everybody hears the criticisms, but what can you do? It doesn’t make sense.’’
Cutler’s body language is either telling or can give people the wrong impression, depending on whom you believe. He can be dismissive and impatient during media sessions, which could be partially a product of the criticism aimed at him — or a contributing factor in why he’s criticized so often.
Either way, he doesn’t seem to mind. Unless the Bears win the Super Bowl, it’s probably not going to change anytime soon, either.
‘‘I don’t know,’’ Cutler said when asked what makes him a lightning rod. ‘‘No one knows what we’re trying to get done with this offense. No one knows my hot reads. No one knows my reads at all. No one knows what we’re trying to do with the offensive line, what we’re doing with the receivers. You guys don’t have a clue. So it doesn’t bother us. It doesn’t bother anybody in that locker room. We’re going to continue doing what we do. As long as we continue winning games, good things are going to happen.’’
It doesn’t sting him? Not even a little?
‘‘No, it doesn’t,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t read it. We talk about some of the hot topics before we come into these press conferences, but for the most part, I talk to Mike. As long as he’s good, I’m good.’’