CLEVELAND – The Chicago Bears were in a tailspin, their playoff hopes getting blown around as if caught in the brutal, whipping winds off Lake Michigan.
Backup quarterback Josh McCown rescued them, maybe saved their season.
His reward? A demotion.
McCown returns to a reserve role Sunday behind starter Jay Cutler as the Bears (7-6), coming off a win over Dallas on Monday, visit the Browns (4-9). Cleveland is still smarting after a final-minutes collapse — aided by some questionable officiating — last Sunday in New England and a 27-26 gut-wrenching loss to the Patriots.
Cutler missed the past four games with a severely sprained left ankle, but was cleared to play on Thursday and will be back in the lineup. All McCown did while filling in was pass for a career-high 348 yards and throw four touchdown passes against the Cowboys; post the league's third-highest QB rating in seven starts; and guide the Bears back into contention in the NFC North.
Bears coach Marc Trestman made it very clear for weeks that when Cutler was healthy, he'll play. That time has come.
"Josh has done exactly what we've asked him to do, he's performed very, very well as a backup and he understands his role," Trestman said. "We've got a very close quarterback room, guys are resolute in terms of how we operate and how we work. We all feel very, very good about the way we put this thing together. We're certainly very, very happy about the way Josh has performed, but this has been the plan and we're going to execute it."
Cutler will have to shake off any rust against a defense itching to rebound after failing to close out games the past two weeks.
"We definitely feel like we've got a lot to prove," said linebacker D'Qwell Jackson. "We felt like we played pretty good for three quarters and then that last five minutes of the game it just swung back and forth. We've got to do a better job of when we have a lead, we've got to hold onto it and not give it up."
As the Bears welcome back Cutler, the Browns can only hope quarterback Jason Campbell can deliver a performance close to the one he pulled off against Bill Belichick's defense.
Campbell, who spent last season as a backup with Chicago, passed for a career-high 391 yards and three TDs last week. Campbell's impressive outing has spawned speculation he might be in the mix to start next season, even if the Browns take a quarterback high in May's draft.
Here are five things to keep an eye on when the Browns play their home finale against the Bears:
GREAT GORDON: Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon didn't think he was Pro Bowl worthy. Four games have changed his mind.
Gordon has 774 yards receiving in the past four games, the best stretch in NFL history. Last week, Gordon abused Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib, who couldn't handle the receiver's size or speed. Gordon had seven catches for 151 yards, including an 80-yard TD in which he left Talib in his dust.
A trip to Hawaii was one of Gordon's goals, and after downplaying his chances last month, the 22-year-old believes he's earned Pro Bowl consideration.
"If the numbers stay where they are, yeah, I definitely expect to be there," he said.
ROAD AHEAD: To make the playoffs, the Bears have to avoid another bump in the road. They have lost their past two road games — at St. Louis and Minnesota — and haven't won away from Soldier Field since Nov. 4. After visiting Cleveland, the Bears go to Philadelphia before playing their final home game against Green Bay.
FORTE'S FORCE: With 1,073 yards rushing and another 518 receiving, Chicago's Matt Forte has established himself as one of the league's most versatile backs, and one the Browns know they have to slow down.
"He's deadly whether he's catching the ball or running the ball," Jackson said. "So we got some things lined up for him that we think we can take advantage of. At the same time, you can't stop a guy like that, you can hope to contain him. He's that good."
HOME COOKING: In their previous home game, the Browns gave up a late lead and were beaten by the Jacksonville Jaguars, who scored a TD in the final minute.
Cleveland is trying to finish with a .500 record at home and avoid its sixth consecutive double-digit loss season and 12th season of at least 10 losses in 15 years.
BEAR FACTS: Defense, once as much a Chicago staple as deep-dish pizza, is in short supply these days.
The Bears rank last in the league in rushing defense, allowing 157 yards per game. Chicago has allowed 198 yards rushing or more in five of the past seven games. The Bears have sorely missed starting linebacker Lance Briggs, who is expected to miss his seventh straight game with a broken shoulder.
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