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2015 Bears epitaph: It wasn't Jay Cutler's fault

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is sacked by Lions defensive end Ziggy Ansah. Cutler was sacked four times in the Bears' 24-20 loss to the Lions at Soldier Field. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

It looked like the “same-old Jay,” but it wasn’t.

Jay Cutler threw three interceptions in the Bears’ 24-20 loss to the Lions on Sunday at Soldier Field — the first time all season he has thrown more than one — with the final pick an all-too-familiar fourth-quarter mishap. The Bears were driving for a potential winning touchdown at the Lions 37 with two minutes to play when Cutler was hit by Lions defensive end Ziggy Ansah as he threw, and the pass fluttered well short of Deonte Thompson and was picked off by safety Glover Quin.

“You just see the ball floating in the air,” Cutler said. “It’s a sick feeling, because you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

It was a sick feeling for a lot of Bears fans who have seen this all too often in Cutler’s seven years in Chicago. But if Cutler has earned anything in a challenging 2015 season, it’s the benefit of the doubt. Usually he’s the first person to get blamed for one of these losses. This time he was among the last — the Bears need to protect him better; and he needs to be throwing more passes to proven NFL receivers. He also was hit as he threw on the interception by Tahir Whitehead in the final seconds of the first half.

Even the numbers seemed to reflect the difference Sunday. Cutler finished 17-of-23 for 245 yards, four sacks, two touchdowns and three interceptions for a 97.5 passer rating. That’s the best passer rating in a three-interception game in Cutler’s career — his average in the previous five three-pick games was 50.9. In fact, it’s the highest passer rating for any quarterback with three interceptions in the NFL this season.

Cutler gave his supporting cast the credit. “You get DT, Marky, JB, Cam … I don’t think anyone would have pegged them as our four at the end of the season,” Cutler said. “They fought their butts off. I couldn’t be more proud of their effort and how they played today.”

Therein lies the source of perhaps the greatest appreciation for Cutler’s performance Sunday and this season: Who the heck are DT, Marky, JB and Cam? The answer: part of the most nondescript receiving corps a quarterback has ever thrown to. For the record, “DT” is Deonte Thompson, who coming into this season had not caught a pass in the NFL since 2013. “Marky” is Marc Mariani, who coming into this season had not caught a pass in the NFL since 2011. “JB” is Joshua Bellamy, who coming into this season had never caught a pass in the NFL. And “Cam” is rookie Cameron Meredith, who coming into this season was the big man on campus at Illinois State.

Against the Lions they combined for 12 receptions for 193 yards and a touchdown — led by Mariani (six catches, 80 yards) and Bellamy (3-49, including a 34-yard touchdown).

Cutler was not in a position to reflect on the season just minutes after it was over. But he did allow that he took a step forward in 2015.

“I would definitely say so,” said Cutler, who finished with a career-high 92.3 passer rating (21 touchdowns, 11 interceptions). “That’s not all on me. That’s on a lot of guys — the receivers, the line, Dowell [Loggains, the quarterbacks coach], Adam [Gase, the offensive coordinator]. It takes a lot to be successful in this league. It’s not one person.”

Cutler didn’t reach an elite level this season. He’s not Carson Palmer. But he showed he’s not the same-old Jay, which gives him a fighting chance to become Carson Palmer heading into 2016.

“Jay is so much more focused,” right tackle Kyle Long said. “I can do everything in my power to be as focused as possible and Jay will be double that focus — that’s just who he is.

“Obviously a tip here, a tip there — somebody hitting his arm in his throwing motion. You look at the numbers and the turnovers, it isn’t what we want. But Jay played his butt off today. It was a gutty performance and it’s a shame we couldn’t pull it out for him.”

Cutler enters the 2016 offseason with uncertainty — most notably Gase, who is reported to be a top candidate for multiple head coaching jobs.

“I was going to ask you guys if you could write some [negative] articles about him — then maybe we could cool him off some,” Cutler joked at his press conference Sunday. “But I don’t see that happening.

“He’s done a heckuva job. I couldn’t be more happy for him. We’ll see what happens. If he gets a job, he deserves it. If he doesn’t, he’s going to come back to us and we’ll be happy about that, too.”