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Jay Cutler a long shot to return in regular season

Jay Cutler (left) says Mike Martz has be careful with kind situations he puts Caleb Hanie in. | Getty Images

Jay Cutler (left) says Mike Martz has to be careful with the kind of situations he puts Caleb Hanie in. | Getty Images

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Updated: January 3, 2012 9:10AM

An old saying — absence makes the heart grow fonder — seemed appropriate after the Bears’ 25-20 loss Sunday in Oakland.

Suddenly, for even the most critical Bears fans, one of Chicago’s most important thumbs — neighboring in the stratosphere with Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert’s — can’t heal soon enough after backup Caleb Hanie tossed three interceptions against the Raiders.

But even Jay Cutler, the owner of that surgically repaired right thumb, acknowledged that any hope of returning for the regular season is a long shot, at best.

“I want to play next weekend if they’d let me, but I don’t think that’s going to be in the cards,” Cutler said. ‘‘It could be that I’m done for the season. I don’t know. I just have to be smart about it. I have to realize there is a long-term picture here.”

So in the short term, Hanie has to figure out a way to overcome nerves and sketchy decisions to guide the Bears through a somewhat-favorable five-game finish to the regular season and into the postseason, where he can — the team hopes — hand the reins back to Cutler. Up first is the easiest game, a matchup at Soldier Field against the 4-7 Kansas City Chiefs, losers of four consecutive games.

“I’m not thinking about winning out,” Hanie said Wednesday. “I’m just thinking about the Kansas City Chiefs.

“We can’t win out if we don’t win this one.”

Cutler on the mend

In his first public comments since undergoing thumb surgery in Vail, Colo., Cutler talked extensively about his injury and his recovery. There was no ligament damage, but he needed three screws and two pins to stabilize his right thumb.

In a few weeks — the exact timetable still is uncertain — the pins will be removed, although the screws will stay.

“I’m going to lose a little flexibility in my thumb, but the doctor was very careful where he was pinning and where he was putting the screws,” Cutler said. “Throwing the football, I won’t have any complications.”

Cutler, though, insisted he couldn’t give an exact date for his return.

“I’ll have to take it week by week, take some X-rays and CT scans the next couple of weeks and see if the bone’s healing like it should be,” he said. “I don’t want to put a real number on it because I just don’t know.”

In the meantime, Cutler said his focus is to help Hanie, especially given the longtime backup’s limited playing time.

“I can only tell him so much,” Cutler said. “He’s got to go out there and learn for himself; that’s the hard part.

“We’ve just got to be really careful with what kind of situations we put him in. Mike [Martz has] got to be careful with that.

‘‘We don’t really know what Caleb’s comfortable with; Caleb doesn’t know what he’s comfortable with.”

The road ahead

Hanie admitted nerves affected him early against the Raiders, but he expected to be much calmer this Sunday, especially at Soldier Field. He noted that timing and knowing where his teammates are going to be — like running back Matt Forte on the second interception — are among the challenges of limited snaps together.

But Martz said Hanie can move in a manner similar to Cutler, which means the coaching staff doesn’t have to limit the playbook. In fact, Martz said, they were “a little more conservative with him than we probably needed to be.”

“[Hanie] just needs to play,” Martz said. “I would expect him to start off [against the Chiefs] where he left off [against the Raiders].

“I feel confident that he will.”

The Bears need to keep piling on wins. They share a 7-4 record with the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons. Throw in the 6-5 New York Giants (currently behind the 7-4 Dallas Cowboys), and the Bears have stiff competition for one of the two NFC wild-card spots. The Lions and Giants have the toughest remaining schedules, but the Bears could face an interesting situation Dec. 25.

There could be a role reversal with the Green Bay Packers.

Last season, the Bears could’ve knocked the Packers out of the playoff picture with a victory at Lambeau Field in the season finale. But the Packers prevailed, got hot and exacted revenge on the Bears in the NFC title game en route to a Super Bowl championship.

Whether they have a loss or not by then, given the aggressive approach of coach Mike McCarthy, the Packers might do all they can to damage the Bears’ playoff hopes.

The Bears, though, aren’t looking that far ahead.

“For us,” coach Lovie Smith said, “it’s all about Kansas City.”

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