Will Jay Cutler's Return Swing NFC Playoff Race?

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Will Jay Cutler's Return Swing NFC Playoff Race?
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Two short weeks ago, the Chicago Bears had just dropped their third game in four tries, and both Jay Cutler and Lance Briggs were lost to what appeared to be significant injuries. 

A season that started so promising appeared to be on the brink of collapse. 

Fast forward to the present, and Chicago is coming off its first win over the Green Bay Packers since 2010, Aaron Rodgers is dealing with a hurt shoulder, and Cutler might be just days away from making his return. 

The 5-3 Bears are very much alive. The NFC North is very much open. As is the case in every season, life in the NFL can change so drastically from week to week. 

Cutler's return could now be the fuel needed for the Bears to make a serious run at recapturing the division crown. 

According to Chris Mortensen of ESPN, Cutler has his eyes set on returning this week, despite an original timetable of at least four weeks. If there are no setbacks to his torn groin, the goal is for him to start on Sunday against the Detroit Lions, who are also 5-3 and on top of the NFC North. 

Cutler suffered his injury on Oct. 20 against the Washington Redskins. The Bears host Detroit on Sunday, Nov. 10, leaving 21 days between potential starts. 

Chicago hasn't exactly missed Cutler, whose injuries in previous seasons have been the start of year-ending tailspins. Instead, the Bears have rallied around 34-year-old backup Josh McCown, scoring 51 points over the last six quarters without Cutler. 

It's certainly within the realm of possibility that Cutler will discover this week that he needs another week to get his groin back into playing shape. If that's the case, the Bears can still feel very confident about moving the football and scoring points with McCown under center. 

While the backup quarterback may always be the most popular player on any team, the Bears will still need a healthy Cutler to make a run toward the postseason. 

The final eight games for Chicago feature four road games (St. Louis, Minnesota, Cleveland and Philadelphia) and three division games, including a Week 17 clash with Green Bay. It's possible the Packers will have Rodgers back by the season finale. 

Chicago Bears, Final Eight Games
Opp. W-L
Week 10 vs. DET* 5-3
Week 11 vs. BAL 3-5
Week 12 at. STL 3-6
Week 13 at MIN 1-7
Week 14 vs. DAL 5-4
Week 15 at CLE 4-5
Week 16 at PHI 4-5
Week 17 vs. GB 5-3

*Sunday

For now, however, the division remains as wide open as ever. 

With Rodgers healthy, the Packers could have been looking at a 9-2 or 8-3 start and a stranglehold on the top spot in the NFC North. With him now battling a fractured collarbone, which Rodgers confirmed Tuesday on his weekly radio show with Jason Wilde of ESPN Milwaukee, the Packers will need to scratch and claw to stay alive while their irreplaceable quarterback gets healthy. 

Green Bay faces Philadelphia (4-5), New York (2-6) and Minnesota (1-7) in consecutive weeks before traveling to Detroit for the Thanksgiving Day game. Rodgers could conceivably miss all four games, leaving the Packers vulnerable to potentially falling out of the playoff picture. 

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The Lions, coming off a miracle win over the Dallas Cowboys before the bye week, have the opportunity to win 10-12 games if they take care of business against a soft second-half schedule. Sunday's matchup between the two will decide an early favorite to win the NFC North outright. 

Cutler, over the final seven or eight games in which he figures to start, should have an opportunity to get the Bears into the postseason and prove he's worthy of sticking around in Chicago on a big contract. 

In his first seven games under head coach Marc Trestman, the 30-year-old Cutler was on pace to set new career highs in completion percentage and passer rating. His total QBR in 2013 is roughly 15 points more in 2013 than his career mark in Chicago. Cutler also won two games with late drives, and his mistakes have been mostly contained.  

A new, improved Cutler will also get an opportunity to reintegrate into an offense that is clicking on all cylinders. Regardless of quarterback, the Bears are getting the most out of Matt Forte (on pace for nearly 2,000 total yards), Brandon Marshall (four touchdowns in four games), Alshon Jeffery (621 receiving yards) and Martellus Bennett (tied for seventh most touchdowns among tight ends). 

Chicago is even protecting its quarterbacks. The offensive line has allowed just 12 sacks, the second lowest in the NFL this season. 

It all seems to be setting up for Cutler to be the difference-maker for a Bears team that should have its sights set on recapturing the NFC North crown for the first time since 2010.  

Chicago has responded to midseason adversity, and now Cutler is coming back to a team that is as good a bet to win the division as either the Packers or Lions. How the Bears quarterback handles the final eight games will likely determine not only his team's future but also Cutler's in Chicago. 

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