The Chicago Bears will get their starting quarterback back Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, but they can thank their backup for making sure they didn't fall out of the playoff hunt.
Josh McCown kept the Bears afloat with three wins in five starts, but he'll hand the reins back to Jay Cutler as the Bears hope to grab at least temporary control of the NFC North and put the pressure on Detroit.
Cutler went through a full practice on Thursday after working out with the receivers following a walkthrough, and got the green light to start this week.
Coach Marc Trestman made clear after Monday's 45-28 home win over Dallas that Cutler would be the starter when healthy, despite McCown's strong play.
"Josh has done exactly what we've asked him to do," Trestman told the team's official website. "He's performed very, very well as a backup, and he understands his role."
The Bears (7-6) are tied for the division lead with the Lions, who play Monday night against Baltimore. Chicago has little room for error, with Detroit holding the head-to-head tiebreaker and the Bears two games back for a wild-card spot.
After consecutive losses at St. Louis and Minnesota, McCown orchestrated a near must-win with 348 yards passing, four touchdown passes, one rushing score and no interceptions against the Cowboys.
His 109.8 rating ranks third in the league behind Nick Foles and Peyton Manning. Cutler is 12th at 88.4, and there have been questions as to whether the 34-year-old McCown is the better fit for Trestman's system.
"You always wonder how it would be if you operate in the right kind of offense with the right kind of players and so on and so forth," McCown said. "With me, it's just about being in the right situation now with these guys, with this offense and with these coaches, and allowing me to play within the system with the guys that are around me."
As Cutler said Thursday, though, he's not paying attention to any potential controversy that's come out of McCown's strong play.
"There is not a debate in this building, so that is kind of where my concern lies,' Cutler said.
Some of the credit for McCown's success can be attributed to Alshon Jeffery, who has 17 catches for 333 yards and three touchdowns in the last two games to give Chicago another dangerous option in the passing game beside Brandon Marshall.
After the big day against Dallas, the Bears are second in the league with 28.3 points per game.
The defense, however, will again be without linebacker Lance Briggs, who participated in practice on a limited basis Thursday but will miss at least one more game after fracturing his shoulder Oct. 20.
The Bears rank last in the league against the run at 157.0 yards per game and 27th in overall defense at 381.5.
That might prove not to be a big problem against the Browns (4-9), who rank 28th in rushing offense at 84.3 yards.
Cleveland has dropped seven of eight, including four in a row to ensure its sixth straight losing season. It's coming off a stunning 27-26 loss at New England on Sunday, blowing a 12-point lead in the final 2:39.
"Anything can happen in a game and it did yesterday," coach Rob Chudzinski said Monday. "We have to make the plays and take advantage of the opportunities we have to win those kind of football games."
The Browns have lost their last two by a combined five points.
"They're so close, games that we could've won, we should've won just coming down to the last few seconds," receiver Josh Gordon said. "Teams are scoring points with a few seconds or maybe like a minute left in the game. It hurts to watch everything you worked hard for just crumble down so quickly."
Gordon has 36 catches for 774 yards and five touchdowns during the skid, and his 1,400 receiving yards lead the NFL.
Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden practiced Wednesday for the first time since sustaining a concussion Dec. 1, though Chudzinski said he's uncertain of whether Weeden can back up Jason Campbell.
The Bears have lost four straight in Cleveland, though they won their last meeting with the Browns 30-6 in Chicago on Nov. 1, 2009.
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