(MCT) — CHICAGO — As Julius Peppers entered the locker room, he spoke for nearly everyone in the organization and probably its fan base when he exclaimed, “Winning ugly.”
It trumps the alternative — being on the losing side of an ugly win. The Bears rebounded from a horrendous first three quarters of offensive football to claim a 23-22 victory over the Panthers on Sunday at Soldier Field. Robbie Gould atoned for an earlier miss with a game-winning 41-yard field goal as time expired.
The Panthers did what losing teams do in squandering a 19-7 lead in the fourth quarter. Jay Cutler, who was sacked six times in the first half, fired a 12-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kellen Davis, and cornerback Tim Jennings returned his second interception of Cam Newton 25 yards for a touchdown. Then, after the Panthers went back ahead, Cutler directed a two-minute drive for Gould’s winning kick as the Bears improved to 6-1.
“That was an ugly one,” said Jennings, who leads the NFL with six interceptions. “Offense didn’t play well. Defense didn’t play well. Special teams, we didn’t get big plays.”
Cutler never would have been in position for a two-minute drive had the Bears not forced the Panthers to settle for five field goals, including Justin Medlock’s 45-yarder with 2 minutes, 27 seconds remaining that bounced in off the right upright and staked the Panthers to a 22-20 lead. A first down by the Panthers would have given them a chance to run out the clock, but the defense held and forced Medlock to kick — as it did on three of four red zone trips.
With 16 minutes, 30 seconds left in the game, the statistics were badly skewed. At that point, the Panthers had the ball for 30:22 to 13:08 for the Bears. Carolina led in offensive yards 369-61, and the Bears had produced minus-10 yards passing as the sacks wiped out what little gains had been made. Fans were booing.
“Those first 31/2 quarters were just ugly,” said Cutler, who added that the bruised ribs he suffered Monday against the Lions were not an issue.
Gould missed a 33-yard field goal at the start of the fourth quarter, but after a defensive stop, Cutler connected with Davis for the touchdown. On the next play from scrimmage, Steve Smith slipped, and Jennings hauled in a high pass for an easy pick and score. It was the Bears’ sixth interception return for a touchdown, a club record for a season and an NFL record through seven games.
Suddenly, the Bears led in a game that looked lost. Driving for the victory, Newton (20 of 39, 314 yards) missed Smith (seven catches, 118 yards) in the end zone, and the Bears needed only a Gould field goal to win after Medlock’s 45-yarder.
What happened looked as easy as pitch-and-catch. Cutler, who finished 19 of 28 for 186 yards, hit four passes to Brandon Marshall and one to Earl Bennett. They were quick slants that were open for gains of eight, 12, seven, 11 and 10 yards to easily move downfield.
“They were playing one coverage, and we just kept hitting them and hitting them and hitting them,” Cutler said. “That’s pretty much it.”
That is exactly how the Panthers (1-6) felt. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said the Panthers were locked in Cover-4 and suggested defensive coordinator Sean McDermott should have changed it up.
“I just play the defense they call, but you gotta switch it up,” Munnerlyn said. “I felt like Jay Cutler, he knew what we were in. So he knew the weakness of the defense and they attacked it. We’ve just got to do better.
“(Cutler) was real rattled. I feel like we did a great job on him. We know once you get after Jay Cutler, I think Charles Woodson said it, he’ll fold. But he kept fighting, he overcame that and he got his team the win.”
With his glass half-full, Bears coach Lovie Smith sees it all from a different perspective.
“There’s no such thing as an ugly win,” he said. “To me, the team that deserves the win always ends up on top at the end. We’ll definitely cherish this.”