Whoa. I was all set to spend the evening writing about the wild six-week playoff sprint we seemed set for here in the NFC North when the game-changer arrived: Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler broke the thumb on his throwing hand Sunday. Cutler finished the Bears' 31-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers but he appears likely to miss the rest of the regular season.
Let's not bother playing doctor and asking why Cutler's season could be in jeopardy because of a broken thumb, while Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has played two games with a fractured right index finger. They are different injuries entirely. Cutler apparently needs surgery to fix his injury.
What's important is that the Bears are facing a quarterback change during the most crucial and competitive portion of their season. They will have to navigate the transition well to backup Caleb Hanie to keep pace with the rest of the NFC's playoff contenders. Otherwise, the advantage goes to the Lions, Green Bay Packers, New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants, all of whom are in the NFC playoff picture.
Cutler hasn't necessarily played at a Pro Bowl level this season, but he has mostly avoided mistakes and, most importantly, has been a consistent starter during the Bears' five-game winning streak. Over that stretch, he has thrown seven touchdown passes with three interceptions and taken a modest five sacks. The Bears have something good going, obviously, and it's hard to imagine that rhythm moving uninterrupted to a new quarterback.
Hanie has yet to start a game in his four NFL seasons and, while well-regarded throughout the league, hasn't always appeared to have the full confidence of offensive coordinator Mike Martz. The Bears signed veteran Todd Collins to sit ahead of Hanie on the depth chart in 2010, and Martz finally signed off on Hanie as the backup this summer after a few preseason bumps.
Hanie left most everyone with a good impression after his second-half performance in the 2010 NFC Championship Game, in which he completed 13 of 20 passes for 153 yards and kept the Bears competitive against the Packers. But there is a big difference between the adrenaline of spot relief and taking over a team during the playoff stretch, and to be fair to everyone, Hanie has never gotten the opportunity to show us whether he can handle such an assignment.
I don't think the Bears' playoff hopes have been completely scuttled. You don't want to minimize the loss of a starting quarterback, but the Bears have won plenty of games in recent years on the strength of their defense and special teams. Their formula works when the quarterback minimizes mistakes more than anything else.
And at this point, the NFC playoff crowd is limited. There are eight teams legitimately fighting for six playoff spots. (I'm not counting anyone with a record below .500 even though they could technically finish 10-6.) The Bears probably need to split their final six games, and maybe win four of them, to clinch a playoff spot. Can they do that with an untested quarterback? We're about to find out.