CHICAGO - Quarterback Jay Cutler's fast comeback from a torn left groin muscle was short-circuited Sunday by a new injury, to his left ankle, and it may have shifted the balance of power in the NFC's North division for the rest of the 2013 season.
With Green Bay already in trouble due to Aaron Rodgers's broken collarbone, the game between Cutler's Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions was not only for first place in the NFC North but quite likely for control of the division for the rest of the season.
Advantage Lions. Detroit survived, 21-19, behind Matthew Stafford's three touchdown passes - two of them to wide receiver Calvin Johnson - by stopping a two-point conversion try, a run by Matt Forte that resulted in a two-yard loss, with 40 seconds to go after Cutler finally left the game.
Detroit has a 6-3 record, a one-game lead over the Bears and the Packers, a tie-breaker edge by sweeping the Bears, and faces only one game against a team with a winning record during the remainder of the season.
"It was a great win, no doubt about it, but you've got to make it count," Stafford said. "You've got to make this one count later on down the road. ... We've got to use this win in a positive light and make sure that we're ready to play next week."
Cutler's new injury occurred in the first half and, as the game wore on, it became increasingly clear he was limited in his movement as the Lions' defense zeroed in on him in the pocket and hit him repeatedly after he got rid of the ball.
But even after the Bears failed to score touchdowns on two goal-to-go situations, Cutler remained in the game until only 2:18 remained, when backup Josh McCown took over and led the Bears to their final touchdown.
Brandon Marshall, the Bears' leading receiver, said he was "proud" of Cutler, calling him "a soldier today," and saying, "He had all kinds of things going on from his waist down."
All of which, however, makes it reasonable to wonder if Cutler, whose pre-game completion percentage was 64.9, should have remained in the game as long as he did. He completed just 21 of 40 attempts - only 9 of 22 after halftime -- and he and coach Marc Trestman acknowledged they removed plays from the game plan which would have involved Cutler's moving around.
"Cutler's a strong guy," said defensive tackle Nick Fairley of Detroit, who stopped Forte on the final two-point attempt. "He got up after every hit. We were just like, 'We just got to keep coming.' Hopefully, we would get there enough to shake him up a little."
Chicago got two attempts for the tying two-point PAT; an incomplete pass by McCown on the first try was wiped out by a roughing-the-passer call.
The game began like a shootout, both teams driving for touchdowns on their first possessions, but in the second quarter they each failed on fourth-and-one plays after passing up field goal tries and, after a Cutler pass from the Detroit 4-yard line was tipped and intercepted in the end zone, the half ended in a 7-7 tie.
Detroit began the second half with a drive that led to Johnson's first touchdown, following a 39-yard run by Reggie Bush, and the Bears couldn't answer with Cutler looking increasingly shaky. A drive to the Lions' 14-yard line in the third quarter stalled, resulting in a Robbie Gould field goal, and in the fourth quarter, the Bears couldn't score a touchdown after safety Chris Conte returned an interception 35 yards to the Detroit 9-yard line.
Thus it remained 14-13 Detroit until the Lions drove 74 yard in the closing minutes, Johnson making a pair of third down grabs including one for a touchdown, and setting the stage for McCown to come off the bench and lead a drive to a Marshall touchdown that put the Bears within two points.
But that was where it ended.
The Bears, of course, defended keeping Cutler on the field as long as they did, but Marshall conceded that Cutler "wouldn't have been able to make that" last touchdown pass, a play on which McCown had to scramble in the pocket to wait for Marshall to come open in the end zone.
"I didn't want to take (Cutler) out unless he felt he couldn't do the job," said Trestman.
"Obviously, you could tell that he was limping and wasn't 100 percent," said Roberto Garza, the Bears' center.
Cutler said it was too early to know if he would be able to play next Sunday against Baltimore, acknowledging that his ankle problem "got worse and worse" as the game went on.
"I felt really restricted in the pocket," he said.
Notes: Johnson's touchdown catches, the 62nd and 63rd of his of his career, vaulted him ahead of Herman Moore (62) for the team's career record. ... Levy's interception was his fifth of the season ... Marshall went over 100 yards receiving for the fourth time this year. ... Gould has made 16 of 17 field goal tries for the Bears this year.