The Chicago Bears have been playing as well as just about any team in the league over the past month, but it now appears a thumb injury will keep Jay Cutler sidelined for the next several weeks.
The Oakland Raiders experienced a similar setback last month when Jason Campbell suffered a broken collarbone. But while the Bears are turning to an unproven quarterback to lead them down the stretch, the Raiders perhaps upgraded, handing the offense to a two-time Pro Bowler.
Caleb Hanie will make his first NFL start for surging Chicago on Sunday when they visit Carson Palmer and AFC West-leading Oakland.
A five-game winning streak has helped the Bears (7-3) move into possession of one of the NFC's wild-card spots, but making the playoffs could be tough.
Cutler fractured the thumb on his right throwing hand while trying to make a tackle on an interception return in the fourth quarter of last Sunday's 31-20 victory over San Diego. Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said team doctors believe Cutler, who had totaled eight touchdowns and three interceptions during the winning streak, has a chance of getting back on the field before Chicago's regular-season finale in Minnesota on New Year's Day.
In the meantime, the Bears, who haven't won six straight games since opening the 2006 season 7-0, will turn to Hanie.
Although Hanie has yet to attempt a pass this year, he came up with an inspiring performance in last season's 21-14 loss to Green Bay in the NFC championship game. Playing for an injured Cutler, Hanie led the Bears to two touchdowns and finished 13 for 20 for 153 yards with one TD and two interceptions.
Hanie, who'll be facing an Oakland defense that is tied for sixth in the NFL with 28 sacks, says he won't played scared, won't be ultra-conservative and won't play dumb in his first NFL start.
"I know where I am in the offense, I know what I'm doing in this offense. I've been waiting for this opportunity,'' he said.
The Bears certainly hope Hanie's first start goes better than Palmer's first game of the season.
Two days after Campbell's injury, Oakland (6-4) acquired Palmer from Cincinnati. He appeared in the Raiders' very next game and threw three interceptions.
With time, Palmer has become much more proficient in the offense, averaging 265.0 yards with six touchdowns and four interceptions in the last three games for a 102.2 passer rating, helping lead the Raiders to sole possession of first place in their division.
"Every chance I get to go on the field, whether it's practice or games, I feel more comfortable with it,'' Palmer said after last Sunday's 27-21 win in Minnesota.
Although Palmer is more familiar with the offense, he is running out of people to throw to.
The Raiders, losers of two straight in Oakland, are down to three healthy receivers in Chaz Schilens, Louis Murphy and rookie Eddie McGee, who is on the team's practice squad. The status of Denarius Moore, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Jacoby Ford and Darrius Heyward-Bey are uncertain.
Heyward-Bey ran patterns and caught passes from Palmer during a light non-contact drill Friday and also took part in some team drills.
''It makes it difficult,'' Palmer said of the injury-plagued receivers. ''You don't get the same guys on the field from the week before, that rhythm and timing thing slows down a little bit. So we have our work cut out for us.''
Oakland is also unsure if star running back Darren McFadden will play after missing the last three games with a right foot sprain, but backup Michael Bush has proven to be an adequate replacement.
Bush has rushed for 461 yards in the last four games but will be facing a Chicago defense that is allowing an NFL-low 66.8 rushing yards over the last six weeks.
This defense, which is tied for second in the NFL with 23 turnovers, is one of several reasons the Bears feel they can still reach the postseason despite Cutler's injury. A return game featuring the dangerous Devin Hester and an offense revolving around running back Matt Forte, who leads the league with 1,391 yards from scrimmage, has Chicago believing the playoffs are still very realistic.
"I wish it wasn't the issue, but I think you look at the way we're set up, in my mind, we're still a defensive team and (on) special teams, we can score at any time, which is a good thing,'' Brian Urlacher said. "We run the ball this year better than we have in years past, I think, so that helps our whole situation when you can do that and turn to a guy like Matt and your offensive line and say, 'Hey, we need to run the football.'"
Forte is tied for the league lead with 11 runs of at least 20 yards, while Oakland has allowed an NFL-worst 15 such runs.
The Bears might also be able to move the ball simply by Oakland's mistakes.
The Raiders have already committed 17 defensive personal fouls this season - more than double the total of 29 teams and most in the league since the Chiefs had 19 in 1998.
"We've got better players than we had in the past,'' defensive tackle Tommy Kelly said. "But we're also making the job a lot harder than we have to. We say that to ourselves a lot on the sideline. But in the end all you've got to do is win the game.''
These teams haven't met since Chicago's 17-6 win in Oakland on Nov. 11, 2007.
- Oakland Raiders
- Carson Palmer
- Jay Cutler
- Caleb Hanie