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Jay Cutler continues to keep Bears competitive

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was the hero until he wasn’t. A disastrous meltdown in the final minutes against the Vikings at Soldier Field on Sunday and even more injuries will overshadow everything.

But Cutler’s performance – right tackle Kyle Long called it “ballsy” – shouldn’t be forgotten when held in the greater context of the season.

In many ways, Cutler’s strong play — regardless of who is at receiver, in his backfield, on his offensive line or even starting for the Bears’ defense — continues to make up for his team’s shortcomings personnel-wise.

Despite the Vikings’ come-from-behind 23-20 win, Cutler continues to show why the Bears have to consider him their quarterback past this season. He’s not the reason the Bears lose games; he’s the reason they have been competitive.

“He played admirably,” coach John Fox said.

“He played his ass off,” receiver Alshon Jeffery added.

“He plays with max effort every single week,” tight end Martellus Bennett said. “He catches a lot of flak all the time, but the guy just goes out there every single week and gives us everything he has.”

A limited attack full of wide-receiver screens in the first half turned into a productive day for Cutler once the calls turned downfield. He completed 22 of 33 passes for 211 yards and a 21-yard touchdown to receiver Alshon Jeffery.

Cutler’s four-yard touchdown run would have been the toast of the town were it not for the calamities that followed. Cutler’s run was the type of play that causes coaches to cringe, but teammates still adore.

Cutler rolled out right after he said his options to Jeffery and Marc Mariani were covered. He eyed the pylon before cutting back inside and lowering his shoulder into star safety Harrison Smith.

Cutler joked that he lost on impact – “I instantly regretted it,” he said — but he rolled over into the end zone.

It gave the Bears a 20-13 lead with less than five minutes remaining and capped a masterful 14-play, 72-yard drive that ate up 8 minutes, 34 seconds and included Cutler’s five-yard completion to Jeffery on fourth-and-one.

“That was awesome,” outside linebacker Pernell McPhee said. “He sold out his body for the team. Jay’s one of our leaders and everybody respects him, and that’s what leaders do, sell out their body for the team.”

Cutler also moved the ball well against a Vikings defense that was ranked seventh in total yards entering Week 8 and did so without running back Matt Forte (right knee) and receiver Eddie Royal (left knee) in the second half. Cutler’s connection with Jeffery (10 catches, 116 yards) was nearly unstoppable with each providing compliments for the other on their 21-yard touchdown hookup.

When the Vikings tied the game at 20, Cutler had nearly two full minutes and a timeout to stage another game-winning drive this season.

With the way Cutler was playing it seemed inevitable. But rookie running back Jeremy Langford dropped a potential first-down catch on a third-and-5 after Cutler scrambled to his right and hit him in stride.

“I talked to [Langford],” Cutler said. “He’s going to be a heck of a player for us. I told him that one play doesn’t win or lose a football game. I don’t care what game it is, and that one didn’t win or lose our game.”

Still, Cutler will have to be the one to win games for the Bears. Their injury list remains long and full of starters.

“We have good coaches, we have good schemes,” Cutler said. “We have to find some better ways to execute as players and find ways in the fourth quarter to close out games like this because we aren’t far away. We aren’t far away at all.”

Follow me on Twitter @adamjahns

Email: ajahns@suntimes.com