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Jay Cutler (right with Rashied Davis) is last starting quarterback standing NFC North. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Jay Cutler (right, with Rashied Davis) is the last starting quarterback standing in the NFC North. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 19, 2011 5:13AM



Jay Cutler stands alone.

It’s not official yet, but indications are pretty good that the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers will miss a start Sunday against the New England Patriots, leaving Cutler as the last starting quarterback still starting in the NFC North.

Improved quarterback play has been a story in the division the last couple of seasons, with the Bears trading for Cutler, the Detroit Lions making Matthew Stafford the first overall pick in 2009 and Brett Favre signing with the Minnesota Vikings.

Rodgers suffered his second concussion of the season Sunday and now is threatened with missing his first start since taking over for Favre in 2008. Stafford already has missed 10 games this season in what fast is becoming a star-crossed career. The Vikings are holding out hope that Favre, whose ironman streak ended at an extraordinary 297 consecutive regular-season starts Monday because of a shoulder injury, might return in time for the showdown Monday night against the Bears in Minnesota. But that sounds more like hope and prayer than tangible possibility.

Vikings interim coach Leslie Frazier revealed Tuesday that backup Tarvaris Jackson has turf toe and that rookie third-string quarterback Joe Webb, coming off a hamstring injury, will be under center at practice Thursday. Reports say the Vikings are so desperate they might sign a veteran off the street this week — Patrick Ramsey, Jeff Garcia, Daunte Culpepper? — and start him Monday night. All of which underscores the incredible timing and remarkable good fortune the Bears have enjoyed this season.

Magical good fortune

The Bears face a vulnerable time in their season after getting blown out at home Sunday by the Patriots. But any thoughts of one loss leading to another effectively caved in like the Metrodome roof, with the events in Minnesota leaving the Vikings a battered, if not broken, team that has all but quit on the season.

The Packers, meanwhile, travel Sunday to New England, where the Patriots are virtually unbeatable, having won 26 regular-season games in a row. It’s hard to imagine the Packers pulling off an upset with Matt Flynn under center, which affords the Bears a golden opportunity to claim the NFL North title the next night in Minnesota.

Cutler did miss a game this season because of a concussion and has taken a greater beating than planned, but his last-man-standing status underscores just how magical the Bears’ good fortune has been this season. His missed start, plus one for Lance Briggs and three apiece for Chris Williams and Pisa Tinoisamoa, give the Bears a total of eight starter games lost to injury, miles away the lowest in the division and tops in the NFL. Their only player on injured reserve, outside of a couple of rookies who would have been hard-pressed to make the team, is linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer, who wasn’t scheduled to start this season.

Packers, Lions hit hard

Compare that with the Packers, a team many expected to be a Super Bowl representative this season. The Packers have an NFL-high 13 players on injured reserve and have lost 70 starter games to injury. And it’s not just losing guys; it’s losing front-line players such as running back Ryan Grant, tight end Jermichael Finley, linebacker Nick Barnett, offensive tackle Mark Tauscher and safety Morgan Burnett.

The Lions have 12 guys on injured reserve and have lost 48 starter games to injury. The Vikings have lost five players for the season and 41 starter games to injury.

The Bears knew there was going to be a pothole or two they would have to deal with before the season ended. The trick is making sure you’re not swallowed in a sinkhole. That seems very unlikely for this team, which appears healthy and robust enough to enjoy a run to a division title.

Injury research by sportswriter Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News reveals the healthiest teams in the NFL often have the best chance to win a Super Bowl, with seven of the last 10 champions among the 10 healthiest in the league the season they won the title.

A hardy season for the Bears and misery and misfortune for their opposition have proved to be a great formula to this point.



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