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SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Bears' Jay Cutler is part of a growing trend

When this week is over, at least 15 teams will have used more than one starting quarterback, but Chicago is the only realistic playoff contender in the NFC to be affected.

November 21, 2011|Sam Farmer
  • Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who suffered a broken thumb in Sunday's victory over San Diego, could miss the remainder of the season.
Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who suffered a broken thumb in Sunday's… (Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press )

By the end of this week's games, at least 15 NFL teams will have used more than one starting quarterback.

But in the NFC, only one realistic playoff contender is dealing with a change at its most important position.

Chicago has to make a swap at quarterback after Jay Cutler suffered a broken thumb Sunday in the Bears' victory over San Diego. The injury to his throwing hand came when he was knocked to the ground on an interception return in the fourth quarter.

It's a devastating blow to the Bears, whose five-game winning streak is the league's third-longest behind San Francisco (eight) and Green Bay (10). The Bears, holding out hope Cutler can return by the end of the regular season, will start Caleb Hanie in his place, beginning with Sunday's game at Oakland.

Coach Lovie Smith said Cutler will undergo surgery "soon," and conceded: "We're going to miss a great player for a period of time. Offensively, we're going to rely on our running game a little bit more."

Hanie is more mobile than Cutler but doesn't have his accuracy or arm strength, and has nowhere near the seasoning. Hanie's only significant experience came in last season's NFC championship game when he filled in for the injured Cutler and provided a bit of a spark against Green Bay. He directed a fourth-quarter touchdown drive, trimming the Packers' lead to 14-7 and igniting the home crowd.

On the Bears' next possession, however, a Hanie pass was picked off by tackle B.J. Raji and returned for a touchdown. In the remaining minutes, Hanie threw a touchdown pass and another interception, and Chicago lost, 21-14.

Seeing as Cutler was playing at a Pro Bowl level, that's a break for the Raiders, who lead the AFC West and likewise are playing well. No Cutler is also good news for Detroit, tied in the NFC North with Chicago at 7-3 and jockeying for a wild-card spot behind Green Bay (10-0).

Linebacker Brian Urlacher told reporters Monday that it's up to the defense to pick up the slack in Cutler's absence.

"Not to take anything away from our offense right now," Urlacher said, "but our mind-set is we have to play better and get more takeaways and put them in better field position to be able to be successful.

"We can do that. We've done it in the past. We've just got to do it again. No more mistakes from us. We didn't play well yesterday. We can't have those mistakes this late in the season. So we've got to play better, and hopefully our offense can pick it up when it has to."

Other NFC teams have started multiple quarterbacks — among them Philadelphia (Vince Young for the injured Michael Vick), Arizona (John Skelton for the injured Kevin Kolb), and Washington (Rex Grossman for the ineffective John Beck) — but the Bears are the only ones truly in the playoff hunt.

Two division leaders in the AFC have made recent quarterback changes. Oakland traded for Carson Palmer after losing Jason Campbell to a broken collarbone, and Houston will start Matt Leinart on Sunday in place of Matt Schaub, who appears to be out for the season because of a foot injury.

Palmer has turned in strong performances in the last two games, victories at San Diego and Minnesota, as the Raiders have built a one-game lead over Denver in the AFC West.

Houston, which plays at Jacksonville on Sunday, has a two-game lead in the AFC South.

Leinart, the Heisman Trophy winner from USC, told reporters that over the last 18 months with the Texans he has "gotten my confidence back."

"You can see the fire in his eyes," Coach Gary Kubiak said. "What a great opportunity for him in his career. He'll give us everything he's got."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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