I realize 11 weeks into the NFL season, there is little doubt that the Most Valuable Player in the league is Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. But for me it is a close race. Well, it was. Jay Cutler of the 7-3 Chicago Bears was having a remarkable campaign, but now his season is in jeopardy because of a broken thumb suffered during Sunday's win over the Chargers. Ironically, this injury could prove how valuable Cutler really is to the Bears.
Playing Sunday against his nemesis, Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers, Cutler showed everyone that he is the straw that stirs Chicago's drink. I love Matt Forte and all that the running back has done, but Cutler has raised his level of play which, in turn, increased the Bears' chances of competing with the best teams, most notably the Packers. While Forte is valuable to the Bears, Cutler is the most valuable.
As I wrote on Friday, the Bears' offensive line is still a major work in progress. The protection broke down often against the Chargers, but Cutler was able to slide around in the pocket, keeping his eyes downfield, and make some incredible throws into tight windows. His accuracy on every level has been remarkable considering he rarely gets a clean pocket or the time to let the route develop. He usually has to move left or right and ends up throwing the ball from an awkward position. Yet, when the ball is released, it comes out with tremendous velocity. Pressure does not seem to bother him, and when the protection breaks down, it allows Cutler and his receivers more time, which they often need.
The Bears have always excelled at controlling field position due to a great defense and extraordinary returner in Devin Hester, but the way Cutler was playing the Bears no longer needed a short field to score. During their current five-game winning streak, the Bears scored more than 30 points four times, as they have become explosive offensively. Without household names at receiver, Cutler spread the ball around, favoring only the open target. Where will the Bears get those wow plays without him?
Without Cutler, the Bears will be forced to win with their defense and kicking game. I am not diminishing the ability of Caleb Hanie, but he will have his work cut out for him. Even though Chicago's defense has improved, it has not improved enough to win on its own. Since Cutler played so well of late, the offense has been able to get the lead, thus allowing the defense to play from ahead. Don't minimize the value of this. In the past, having a great defense made winning on the road easier, but in today's game, great offenses make winning on the road much easier.
Without Cutler's movement, or his remarkable arm, the problems on the offensive line will be magnified. The Bears cannot win with Forte alone as they do not have great skill players who put fear into their opponents. Cutler's arm, accuracy, movement in the pocket and ability to keep plays alive is what teams fear. Forte will face nothing but eight-man fronts, and run blitzes will force Hanie to make plays to win.
Offensive coordinator Mike Martz will be creative with his screen package and will try to move Hanie around in the pocket, but defenses will adjust to that pretty quickly. Defenses will force Hanie to be consistent on every drive, which will be hard to do.
This is a huge loss for the Bears. Cutler was playing like an MVP and the team was getting better with each week in all three phases of the game. They looked like a team capable of beating the Packers because they could score, they could make plays in the kicking game and they could pressure the passer without having to blitz. Still, the main reason they had the essential ingredients to challenge the Packers was Cutler. Without him, securing a wild-card spot will be a challenge.
Things I loved
» I love how Lions running back Kevin Smith came in off the street to have his best game as pro and helped Detroit become the first team in NFL history to come back from deficits of 17 points or more to win three times. Smith, often injured during his first stint as a Lion from 2008-10, was out of the league, training and waiting for a call, which came from the Lions last week. Both needed each other. Smith needed a job, and the Lions needed a running game with Jahvid Best on the shelf. With Smith providing the running and quarterback Matthew Strafford providing the passing, the Lions won their seventh game. Smith might prove to be the most important signing of the year, as the Lions needed offensive balance and big plays out of the backfield. Welcome back, Mr. Smith.
» I love how Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has played the past few weeks, especially Sunday against the Redskins in an overtime win. Romo was great all game. The 'Skins took away the Cowboys' running game, forcing Romo to make plays. Coupled with the Giants' loss, Dallas now is in first place in the NFC East. Even though the Cowboys needed OT to beat a bad Washington team, they appear to have the most complete team in the East.
» I love how the Eagles finally put together a complete game and kept their slim playoff hopes alive. With Cutler's injury, all the teams behind the Bears now have a little more hope. The Eagles are on life support, but they got a great effort from their defense in holding the Giants to just 29 yards rushing. With backup quarterback Vince Young leading the offense, the Eagles put together their best drive of the season, converting six third downs, including Young's game-winning touchdown pass to Riley Cooper. Consistency has not been the hallmark of the 2011 Eagles, but this win is something to build on.
Things I hated
» I hated watching Chargers RB Ryan Mathews fumble away his team's chances to get back in the game against the Bears. Mathews, who has five career fumbles, is a good back, but every time he touches the ball, it looks like he is going to fumble. Even though it's hard for the Chargers to feel confident when the ball is in his hands, what else can they do? They need his play-making ability, but Matthews is truly a give-and-take player. Lately, he and the Chargers have been all give during their five-game losing streak.
» I hated Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio's clock management. Down 14-10 to the Browns, Jacksonville needed a touchdown to win. Maurice Jones-Drew ran for a first down on the Browns' 2-yard line with 41 seconds left. Instead of calling timeout, Del Rio opted to let the clock run and called for another Jones-Drew running play. After a 1-yard gain, the Jaguars then called timeout ... with 8 seconds left. They only had time for two more pass plays, both incompletions, on second and third down and never got a chance on fourth down. Del Rio should have called timeout with 41 seconds left, then had four passes in the end zone to win the game.
» I hated seeing the Bills get hammered again, knowing their great start to the season is going to waste. Sunday's game against Miami was over quickly. Teams are daring the Bills to throw downfield, making QB Ryan Fitzpatrick hold onto the ball a little longer and exposing the weaknesses in their offensive line. The Dolphins limited the Bills from making big plays, forcing Fitzpatrick to attempt nearly 40 passes to gain 200 passing yards. Dink and dunk won't cut it. With the exception of the Redskins game, the Bills have played poorly on defense, having to rely on tipped passes to create turnovers to slow down their opponents. But without their opponents making mistakes and the offense not being able to move the ball, Buffalo's chances of being in the playoffs seem remote.
Things on my mind
» The Bucs had the Packers on the ropes, but a strange decision by coach Raheem Morris did them in. Down 28-26, Morris opted to try an onside kick with 4:25 left in the game, which the Packers recovered. It gave the Green Bay offense great field position, which resulted in Jordy Nelson's game-sealing touchdown. It was the second failed attempt at an onside kick by the Bucs in the game. With Aaron Rodgers not playing his best, the Bucs had their chances.
» The Packers were not able to pressure Bucs QB Josh Freeman as Tampa's offense played its best game of the season. The Bucs moved the ball effectively, but they were not as productive as they needed to be in the red zone.
» If teams don't jam and disrupt Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith at the line of scrimmage, his speed is hard to handle on the top of the route. He might not always catch the ball, but Smith has rare explosion.
» Jerome Simpson and A.J. Green give the Bengals two big-time receivers. Simpson was great against the Ravens. When the Bengals get all their skill players back, and they gain more experience together, they will be tough to handle.
» RB Chris Ogbonnaya had a great day for the Browns, gaining more than 100 yards against a tough Jaguars run defense. Ogbonnaya ran hard, broke tackles and finally gave the Browns a runner who could take the pressure off quarterback Colt McCoy.
» The other teams in the NFC West are going to have to reconstruct their rosters to handle the physical play of the 49ers. San Francisco pushed around Arizona, and the game was never close in spite of kicker David Akers having a bad day.
» As of right now, the drafting order would be Indy (0-10); St Louis, Carolina and Minnesota (2-8); and Jacksonville, Miami, Washington and Arizona (3-7). The Rams, Panthers, Vikings and Jaguars just drafted quarterbacks, and the Cardinals just traded for one. This means Washington and Miami might have to trade up to get their man. Both will be competing to be in the right spot.
» The Raiders might not have played their best, but winning in Minnesota is never easy. Oakland ran effectively and protected the ball, only having one turnover (a Michael Bush fumble). The Raiders are looking like the best team in the AFC West right now.
» The Vikings need to move receiver Percy Harvin to running back, full time. He is explosive with the ball in his hands and does all the things a great back needs to do. He is the perfect complement to Adrian Peterson.
» The Rams' offensive line had a hard time blocking the Seahawks, which rendered Sam Bradford and Co. ineffective. The Rams have injuries on their line and playing Seattle without good tackles is not easy.
» Tennessee has been talking about making some changes to its offensive line all season. Based on Sunday, the Titans need to go ahead and make a move. They ran for just 41 yards against the Falcons. For the Titans to win, they must run the ball. So far, that hasn't happened. Things must change in Tennessee.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi