CLEVELAND (AP) — Jay Cutler hasn't always been Chicago's first choice. On Sunday, he was the right one for coach Marc Trestman.
Cutler shook off some early rustiness and threw three touchdown passes in his first start since Nov. 10, leading the Chicago Bears to a 38-31 win over the Cleveland Browns.
Cutler, who missed Chicago's previous four games with a sprained left ankle, threw a 4-yard TD pass to Earl Bennett with 5:41 left as Bears (8-6) rallied in the second half and stayed in contention for an NFC playoff spot.
Cutler finished 22 of 31 for 265 yards and validated Trestman's decision to stick with him over backup Josh McCown, who had played well while filling in for Chicago's starter.
Michael Bush's 40-yard TD run with 2:17 left sealed it for the Bears, who completed a four-game sweep of the AFC North and won their first road game since Nov. 4, when McCown led them to a win over Green Bay.
Trestman had promised Cutler would keep his job once he was healthy. And after Cutler was cleared earlier this week to practice, Trestman kept his word and started the not-always-popular veteran, a decision that had some Bears fans questioning whether it might be better to stick with the hot McCown.
Cutler looked shaky in the first half with the two picks, but he settled down and brought back the Bears, who fell behind 24-17 when Cleveland safety T.J. Ward returned a fumble 51 yards for a TD.
Backed up at his own 5 in front of Cleveland's Dawg Pound section early in the fourth , Cutler drove the Bears 95 yards — with the help of two defensive penalties — and hit Alshon Jeffery with a 45-yard scoring pass to tie it with 10:59 left.
Cutler lofted a deep pass toward the front of the end zone to Jeffery, who wasn't open but hauled in the throw when safety Tashuan Gipson badly mistimed his jump.
Chicago's Zackary Bowman returned an interception 43 yards for a TD to give the Bears a 17-10 lead in the third quarter.
The Browns (4-10) scored two defensive touchdowns, but as has been the case in recent weeks, Cleveland couldn't get the big stop when it needed one. The Browns have lost five straight, eight of nine and dropped at least 10 games in six straight seasons.
Gipson returned an interception 44 yards for a TD and safety T.J. Ward had a 51-yard TD fumble return for the Browns.
Jason Campbell finished 23 of 39 for 273 yards and one touchdown, a 43-yarder to wide receiver Josh Gordon with 59 seconds to go to pull the Browns within 38-31.
Cleveland, which lost a heartbreaker in New England last week when it couldn't recover a late onside kick, was then penalized for illegal formation trying one of their own and the Bears ran out the final seconds.
Ward's 51-yard fumble return for a TD — moments after star cornerback Joe Haden injured his hip — gave the Browns a 24-17 lead late in the third.
Cutler completed a short pass to tight end Martellus Bennett, who was fighting for yardage and a first down when he was stripped from behind by defensive end Billy Winn. Ward scooped up the loose ball and was enveloped by a bubble of Browns for an escort to the end zone and Cleveland's second defensive TD.
Cutler didn't crumble despite his two first-half miscues. His 5-yard TD pass to Brandon Marshall with 24 seconds left in the second quarter tied it 10-all. The pair hooked up on a 41-yard completion, with Marshall outjumping Haden, to set up the tying touchdown.
Gipson's TD return gave the Browns a 10-3 lead midway through the second.
Chicago's defense finally stopped an opponent on the ground, limiting the Browns to 93 yards rushing. The Bears entered with the NFL's worst rushing defense.
Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.