LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Jay Cutler couldn't bear to watch the playoffs in the past because it was a little too painful for him.
Now, he's paying attention.
He is in after missing out his first four seasons, and the Chicago Bears are back after a four-year absence -- with the NFC North championship and a first-round bye, too. They will play host to the defending champion New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles or Seattle Seahawks on Jan. 16.
"It's hard, especially to get a bye in the playoffs," Cutler said. "Some guys make the playoffs every year, some guys never make the playoffs. I have a good understanding of how hard it really is to get in the playoffs. I've been close a few times, but it's been a fun ride so far with this team."
He's finally showing the form many expected when he was a high draft pick by Mike Shanahan and the Denver Broncos in 2006. He's also performing the way many in Chicago envisioned when the Bears made a blockbuster trade to obtain him before last season.
Sure, Cutler's 52 sacks were by far the most in the league, and he seemed more likely to go on injured reserve than lead the team to the playoffs in the early going. A nine-sack first-half against the New York Giants left him with a concussion that sidelined him for a game in early October, and the Bears hit their off week with three losses in four games.
Then they turned it around.
They settled on a starting lineup on the offensive line, cut back on the deep drops and relied more on the running game, taking the load off their quarterback. That led to seven wins in eight games before they closed the regular season with a 10-3 loss at Green Bay.
Cutler did his part, cutting down on the interceptions. He went from 26 a year ago to 16 this season while throwing for 23 touchdowns. Four times in the past six games his rating was 104.2 or higher, and it all added up to this. Cutler is in the playoffs after leading a team to a winning record for the first time since high school.
"He's as sharp an individual as I've ever been around," offensive coordinator Mike Martz said. "It's a dangerous thing for me because sometimes I'll put too much on him. ... He's very, very sharp."
So Martz sees no need for a pep talk, no need to brief Cutler on the playoff atmosphere.
"I've always felt that was unnecessary," Martz said. "Kurt (Warner) went through that obviously; it was his first time. They know. (Cutler's) been around. If he were a rookie or something like that ... you know. He's been in some big games this year, kind of playoff atmosphere. We just talk about managing the game like we do every week with him."
Simply getting to the playoffs is a big step for a quarterback who entered the league with big expectations. With his rocket arm and uncanny athleticism, many thought he could take his place alongside John Elway in Denver.
Just as many predicted his penchant for mistakes and questionable mechanics would prevent him from achieving greatness. Analysts Steve Young and Trent Dilfer have questioned his footwork, saying it's holding him back, but Cutler probably never will fit the prototype.
"Everyone just perceives Jay as some cavalier quarterback," former Bears quarterback Jim Miller said. "And he's not. If you look at statistics, Drew Brees has more interceptions (22) than Jay Cutler. Last year's offense was a totally different offense under Ron Turner than what Jay is in this year. Jay has had to overcome quite a bit to be where he's at right now. He has worked extremely hard, and I hope he gets his just due."
As for Cutler's mechanics?
"How do you coach a player who part of his fallacies make him a great player?" Miller said. "If he sees Jay throwing off his back foot and he throws a 30-yard touchdown, what's Mike Martz going to say: `Don't do that?' I think you want to incorporate the best of both worlds. Weigh the risks, rewards, allow him to be the athlete that he is and the talented player that he is, but at the same time try to reign him in, structure it mechanically."
A bigger issue is Cutler's demeanor and his decisions. Can he keep his composure with the intensity ratcheted up? Will he make the right reads? How will he respond to the postseason pressure?
Can he quiet his doubters?
"Most importantly, he just wants to go out there and lead this team to victory," said receiver Earl Bennett, Cutler's teammate at Vanderbilt who expects to be ready next week after missing the Packers game with an ankle injury. He did not practice on Wednesday.
"He's a team player, and he doesn't really care what a lot of people say about him. But he just wants to make sure this team is successful."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press