Jay Cutler took a pretty serious beating this past week — and this one wasn't administered by the Green Bay Packers' defense, either.

Cutler, the Chicago Bears' starting quarterback, has been the subject of much scorn and scrutiny since he was sidelined with a knee injury sustained in the second quarter of last Sunday's NFC Championship game against Green Bay.

Many media members and always-on-the-couch critics, along with several NFL players past and present (Maurice Jones-Drew and Asante Samuel, among others), quickly questioned Cutler's toughness in a game of such magnitude — heck, it was the BIGGEST GAME OF HIS CAREER — with the Bears just one win away from a berth in next Sunday's Super Bowl.

After all, a couple of years ago, San Diego Chargers' quarterback Philip Rivers played in the AFC Championship game with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the mother of all knee injuries. It was a gritty performance, albeit a poor one.

And most fans figure that notorious NFL tough guys like Brett Favre and Ben Roethlisberger would never let a little thing like a knee injury keep them out of a title game — or almost any other game, for that matter.

OK, so Cutler won't ever be mistaken for Karl Malone when it comes to proving his manhood.

Cutler stayed on the sidelines for the second half of Chicago's 21-14 loss. He stood around at times with his teammates, and he didn't appear to be in terrible pain or agony. The always-aloof QB did not grimace or wear a particularly pained or frustrated expression on his face, either, but many insiders insist it would have been a mistake for Cutler to try and keep playing on the injured leg.

Bears' linebacker Brian Urlacher — a tough guy if ever there was one — emphatically defended his quarterback in postgame interviews, speaking as if he was insulted that anyone would question Cutler's grit or determination to try and tough it out and play through the injury.

As it turned out, after the game, Cutler was diagnosed with a torn medial collateral ligament (MCL) in his knee.

He probably could have continued playing, but at what cost? His mobility would have been extremely limited, and there's his future to consider, too.

Still, you couldn't blame some Bears' fans — or delighted fans of the Denver Broncos, the team that traded Cutler to Chicago a couple years back — from bad-mouthing Cutler about his toughness, or lack of the same.

Words like "wuss," "wimp" and "sissy" were used abundantly.

And it didn't help his case at all that, a few days after the NFC title-game defeat, Cutler was seen walking around on the injured leg while shopping in Southern California with his girlfriend, actress Kristin Cavallari.

If he'd only been limping, used crutches, worn a knee brace or, better yet had her push him around in a wheelchair, Cutler could've saved himself a lot of grief. Of course, it's one thing to try and dodge onrushing Packer defenders; it's entirely another to navigate the dangers of a shopping mall.

But hey, it's not for us to question how injured he was, or his threshold or tolerance for pain. None of us really knows how bad he was hurting or how wobbly his knee felt. Each of us has something inside of us that tells us when we can no longer go on.

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Instead, I would question Cutler's mental toughness, his leadership, his willingness to try and play through the pain, and his desire to continue. After all, in time, his leg will heal. And now his feelings have been hurt, too.

His real problem might not be in his knee at all, but between his ears. And most definitely in his heart — when all is said and done, that may be where his real weakness lies.

And disappointed Bears' fans should be much more worried about those two parts of Jay Cutler's anatomy — his heart and his head — than they are about his knee.

e-mail: rhollis@desnews.com