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Monday November 21st, 2011

The Bears' road to the playoffs will be a lot harder if they have to travel it without Jay Cutler. (EPA)

Jay Cutler has been at the heart of Chicago's recent hot streak, but the Bears might have to finish their playoff push without him.

According to multiple reports Sunday night, Cutler broke the thumb on his right (throwing) hand during the Bears' win over San Diego. Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune reported that two sources confirmed that Cutler will miss 6-8 weeks, and that the Bears will avoid putting him on injured reserve in order to have him for any possible playoff games. Michael C. Wright of ESPNChicago earlier reported that Cutler will undergo surgery and could miss the rest of the regular season.

If that's accurate, then the 7-3 Bears face a monumental task trying to secure a wild-card spot in the NFC. Cutler's current backup is fourth-year man Caleb Hanie, who was pressed into duty in Chicago's playoff loss to Green Bay last year. He has yet to throw a pass this season and has never made an NFL start.

The Bears also have rookie QB Nathan Enderle out of Idaho, but he has not seen any NFL action.

Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times tweeted, citing a source, that Cutler may have suffered the injury while chasing down the Chargers' Antoine Cason after an interception. Cutler helped force Cason out of bounds, preventing a touchdown. The interception came after Bears receiver Johnny Knox slipped and fell while running a route, sending Cutler's pass right into Cason's hands.

As things stand right now, the Bears hold the second wild-card spot and No. 6 overall seed in the NFC. Their final six games include trips to Oakland, Denver, Green Bay and Minnesota, and home matchups against Kansas City and Seattle.

Chicago's options outside the current roster would be limited, since the trade deadline passed several weeks ago. One name that surfaced Sunday night was Marc Bulger, who retired this past summer but played under current Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz in St. Louis. The news about Cutler also will no doubt trigger some ill-advised calls for Chicago to reach out to Brett Favre, but that's a far-fetched scenario. The reality is that Hanie is the best option the Bears have.

Hanie was the third quarterback Chicago used in that postseason loss to the Packers. Cutler started that game, then left in the third quarter with a knee injury. He took heavy criticism following the Bears' loss from people claiming that he could have returned to the field -- Cutler never left the Chicago sideline and appeared to be walking fine throughout the second half.

Todd Collins initially stepped in to replace Cutler, but the Bears turned to Hanie after Collins struggled. Hanie completed 13 of 20 passes in his appearance, with one touchdown and two interceptions.

Cutler, meanwhile, kept hearing from his naysayers -- who have followed him throughout his career, first in Denver and now in Chicago -- as the Bears started the season 2-3. He's been excellent, though, during the Bears' win streak, doing most of his work behind a shaky offensive line.

For whatever it's worth (probably not much) Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger fractured his thumb in Week 10 vs. Cincinnati and is expected to play in Week 12 and beyond. He also played through a similar injury during the Steelers' 2005 Super Bowl run. Brett Favre broke his thumb in 2003, yet kept his consecutive starts streak alive.

The early reports suggest that Cutler's injury is more severe than any of those cases, hence the possible need for surgery.

That's the first step for the Bears now: figuring out how badly Cutler will be out. A six-to-eight week window could get Cutler back on the field in time for the playoffs, but the Bears have to get there first. Chicago and Detroit sit a game ahead of 6-4 Dallas and 6-4 Atlanta in an increasingly-hot race for the wild cards. Without Cutler, the Bears could struggle to hang on to their position. This is a potentially devastating blow to one of football's hottest teams.

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