- Associated Press - Thursday, December 30, 2010

LAKE FOREST, ILL. (AP) - Mike Tice refers to it in jest as the night he “almost resigned.”

The Chicago Bears‘ offensive line coach watched in horror as Jay Cutler got sacked nine times in a loss to the New York Giants in early October, a jarring eye-opener that could have sent him into hiding.

Instead, Tice stuck around.

The blockers stuck it out and the Bears (11-4) are now headed to the playoffs for the first time in four years, with a first-round bye and an outside shot at the top seed in the NFC as they wrap up the regular season at Green Bay.

It’s quite a turnaround for a team that appeared to be going nowhere earlier in the season, dropping three of four before their off week following a 3-0 start. Since then, Chicago has won seven of eight, and one reason for that is the blocking.

It’s been better, if not dominant.

Even so, that’s a big improvement for a line that ranks dead last overall in the NFL and has allowed a league-leading 50 sacks.

Cutler is staying on his feet, with 19 sacks in the past eight games compared to 27 in his first six. Matt Forte is finding room to run, averaging 4.7 yards per carry during this turnaround and 5.7 over the past five games.

Suddenly, the line doesn’t seem quite as vulnerable.

“They’re just more confident, I think,” Forte said. “When you know what to do and who to get, then you can play faster that way. They’re playing at an extremely high level.”

The linemen had arguably their best game last week against one of the toughest defenses in a 38-34 win over the New York Jets.

They gave Cutler enough time to throw for 215 yards and three touchdowns with just two sacks, while Forte ran for 113 yards on 19 attempts.

It’s hard to believe this is the same unit that was giving opponents free passes earlier this season. Then again, it’s not quite the same.

It went through four different lineups in the first seven games because of injuries and poor play while struggling to adapt to Mike Martz’s system.

“We’ve been growing as a group, week after week and we still have a long way to go,” guard Roberto Garza said.

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