LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Jay Cutler already had his break, and it lasted five long weeks while his sprained thumb healed.
He hardly needed more inactivity during Chicago's bye week, but now the Bears quarterback is eager to seize on momentum he sees building ahead of Sunday's game against the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium.
A win can do that.
During a 20-10 win over the Vikings on Oct. 31, Cutler displayed rust early but recovered to complete 20-of-31 for 252 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions. He had been 28-for-46 for 373 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions before his thumb injury and long layoff.
"Guys went out there, they played extremely hard," Cutler said. "It was Monday Night Football. I feel like our backs were up against the wall a little bit. And guys responded, which was awesome to see."
Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains saw a different Cutler than the one who ran the offense for 11/2 games until spraining his thumb against the Eagles in Week 2.
"I thought Jay played very inspired football, showed a lot of emotion, and he was excited to be back out there with his teammates," Loggains said. "I thought the biggest thing he did was the plays he made on third down."
Cutler moved around in the pocket long enough for receivers to come open and the Bears (2-6) converted 7 of 14 third downs. They went into the game ranked 27th in the league converting third downs (35.1 percent).
"His ability to extend plays on the third downs really shows up and helps," Loggains said.
The Bears also scored two touchdowns in the red zone, the first time they'd had as many since backup Brian Hoyer led a 17-14 victory over the Lions on Oct. 2.
The game was the first Cutler played with running back Jordan Howard starting. The Bears ran for 158 yards on 29 attempts to complement the passing game, but in Cutler's first two starts, they failed to crack 20 rushing attempts.
"I think any quarterback alive, even guys wearing gold (Hall of Fame) jackets, will tell you that's a quarterback's best friend," coach John Fox said of the running game. "You don't want to become one-dimensional. Sometimes when you're throwing the ball 50, 55 times a game, it's not very good regardless of how talented you are as a quarterback."
Loggains saw the team benefit from Cutler to a greater extent than his passing.
"I thought he played very inspired football," Loggains said. "It went back to his preparation, the way that he dealt with the injury and staying involved and helping Hoyer. When his number was called, when he was cleared to be the starter again, he was ready to play; he didn't miss a beat. I thought he played his best game of the season. And we expect the Tampa game to be the next best."
Cutler anticipates a more efficient offense that will be healthier than it has been since the opener. He could have starting guards Josh Sitton (ankle) and Kyle Long (triceps) back after both missed the last game. They practiced without restrictions on Thursday. Slot receiver Eddie Royal could return from a toe injury.
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"Now we've had a bye, so everyone has to knock off some rust," Cutler said.
The last time the Bears won a road game was at Tampa on Dec. 27. They haven't had consecutive victories since Nov. 9 and 15 last year.
"This league's all about putting together wins," Cutler said. "If you go win-loss throughout the whole year, you're not going to be where you want to be. So being able to stack two, three, four, five wins — not have back-to-back losses — that's how you make the playoffs and that's how you're successful in this league."