Chicago quarterback Caleb Hanie has struggled, but he's not about… (Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press )
The Denver Broncos' amazing turnaround since Tim Tebow has taken over at quarterback hasn't just resulted in a startling series of fortuitous events on the field.
Now, the new co-leaders of the AFC West have gotten a break in what had been expected to be a likely nonconference defeat by the visiting Chicago Bears.
Two weeks ago, the Bears were on their way to 7-3 when quarterback Jay Cutler suffered a broken thumb in the fourth quarter, forcing backup Caleb Hanie to finish the regular season. Sunday, the Bears lost leading rusher Matt Forte to a knee-ligament strain that is expected to sideline him for at least two weeks.
The Bears fell to 7-5 by losing at home to the AFC West's last-place Kansas City Chiefs.
"The message to the football team is, 'We know about the disappointments, but we still control what we do,' " Bears Coach Lovie Smith told reporters.
The Bears are tied with Atlanta and Detroit in the race for the two NFC wild-card spots, but their situation looks perilous after Hanie completed only 11 of 24 passes for 133 yards with three interceptions in the 10-3 loss to the Chiefs.
A Monday report said Brett Favre was open to hearing from the Bears, but Smith shot down any interest in that idea, and organization officials have expressed skepticism there'd be time for the old Packer to pick up offensive coordinator Mike Martz's complex system.
"Caleb's our quarterback," Smith said. "He didn't play well. Give us some time. Caleb can run our offense. We have our quarterback here now."
With Forte missing, Smith will lean on bruising Marion Barber (281 yards, five touchdowns) and UCLA product Kahlil Bell (four carries for 34 yards versus Kansas City) to run the ball.
The Bears need the victory, with games following at home versus Seattle, at unbeaten Green Bay, and closing at Minnesota — where Tebow engineered another compelling late victory Sunday, 35-32.
"Denver's been playing great football, that's been documented," Smith said of Tebow's 6-1 record as a starter. "It's time to go on the road and get a win."
The Brian Urlacher-led Bears defense does rank eighth in the NFL against the run, and Tebow likes to run. Tebow hasn't completed more than 10 passes in five straight victories, but his 468 yards rushing help the Broncos rank first in the league in running the ball.
By winning, the Broncos (7-5) can take control of the West this week with co-leader Oakland playing at Green Bay. The Raiders already have one more loss than Denver in the division, and that's the NFL's first tiebreaker after head-to-head results. The Broncos have only one division game remaining, against Kansas City.
Denver closes against New England, at Buffalo, then home to the Chiefs.
Other key games:
New York Giants (6-6) at Dallas (7-5): The Giants might be in a four-game losing streak, but they just took Green Bay to the final second, and running back Ahmad Bradshaw looked strong in his return from a broken foot. The Cowboys, meanwhile, could rue their loss at Arizona after kicker Dan Bailey missed an attempt at a game-winning field goal — after a successful attempt was erased by a timeout called an instant before the snap — and they then gave up an overtime touchdown run.
Houston (9-3) at Cincinnati (7-5): Third-string rookie quarterback T.J. Yates can move the Texans closer to their first playoff spot and division title and perhaps even a first-round bye if he can beat the Bengals, who were blown out by Pittsburgh last week. Cincinnati is one of four 7-5 teams in pursuit of the one wild-card spot behind whoever loses out in the AFC North battle between Baltimore and Pittsburgh, both 9-3.
Oakland (7-5) at Green Bay (12-0): Yes, anything can happen in the NFL, but the Raiders are up against it here after trailing 34-0 Sunday in their 34-14 loss at Miami. Running back Darren McFadden's absence is being strongly felt, and the Packers are dedicated to the idea of winning every game.