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Broken thumb threatens to derail Jay Cutler’s season

Jay Cutler jumps above defenders complete pass Matt Forte first half against San Diego Sunday Soldier Field. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times

Jay Cutler jumps above defenders to complete a pass to Matt Forte in the first half against San Diego on Sunday at Soldier Field. | Andy Lavalley~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 20, 2012 1:54AM

Jay Cutler, a key to the Bears’ five-game winning streak,
on Sunday showed the
toughness that so often was
questioned after the NFC
Championship Game in January.

He took a knee to the head, completed a pass while being pulled down, then sprinted to help prevent a touchdown after receiver Johnny Knox fell on a slant pattern and San Diego Chargers cornerback Antoine Cason intercepted a pass.

Many quarterbacks would have given up on the play, but Cutler raced over and slowed Cason enough that running back Matt Forte was able to finish him off and prevent the touchdown.

‘‘Maybe Jay’s biggest play of the game came on that interception, buying time for Matt Forte,’’ coach Lovie Smith said. ‘‘Who would have thought we’d be talking about Matt Forte and Jay Cutler on a defensive play they made?’’

That hustle play by Cutler, though, might cost him the rest of the season. He broke the thumb on his throwing hand, and it’s feared he did it on that play. He will have more tests, but two sources told the Sun-Times there is a concern he might be lost for the season.

Remarkably, Cutler finished the game and proceeded through his usual postgame routine, which included his usual news conference. About 8 p.m., Fox Sports reported that Cutler had injured his thumb.

After a slow start to the season, Cutler’s play had improved dramatically. For the season, he’s 182-for-314 for 2,319 yards with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

In recent seasons, the Bears had relied on their defense and special teams to carry them to victories. But Cutler and Forte have helped to ignite the offense this season.

Despite a loss Oct. 10 in Detroit, Cutler turned heads with his gritty performance, somehow enduring a fierce pass rush from the Lions to complete nearly 75 percent of his passes for 273 yards and a touchdown. The next week, Cutler completed 21 of 31 passes for 267 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in a 39-10 blowout of the Minnesota Vikings.

But his finest game might have come in Philadelphia, where Cutler rallied the Bears to a 30-24 victory Nov. 7 against the Eagles. While he was only 18-for-32, he didn’t turn the ball over and completed many clutch passes in the second half.

He was clutch in the second half again Sunday, with the Bears converting eight consecutive third downs at one point. Even after he broke his thumb, Cutler completed two more passes that converted third downs.

Ultimately, the grass at Soldier Field might be to blame for Cutler’s injury. Knox was running a slant and had inside position on Cason. But right after Cutler released the pass, Knox fell to the ground.

‘‘That was all me,’’ Knox said. ‘‘I slipped. It shouldn’t happen. But luckily Jay made the tackle.’’

Obviously, the Bears weren’t so lucky after all.

Given his toughness, Cutler is expected to do everything possible to play. But it’s the thumb on his throwing hand, which is key to his ability to grip the ball and throw it.

Backup quarterbacks haven’t exactly shined in the NFL this season, but Caleb Hanie now will get his chance.

It’s a critical stretch for him and a critical stretch for the Bears. They’re in the midst of a soft part of their schedule, facing the AFC West, although the toughest challenge will be on the road Sunday against the Oakland Raiders. But the Raiders’ defense is one of the worst in the NFL, entering Sunday ranked 26th.

After that, the Bears will host the Kansas City Chiefs, then head to Denver, where they will face the Broncos and likely defensive rookie of the year Von Miller.

Opposing teams have been angling to stop Forte and daring the Bears’ receivers to beat them. Now those receivers will have to adjust to a new quarterback.

So how good is Hanie, who had a mixed performance after taking over for Cutler and Todd Collins in the NFC title game against the Green Bay Packers?

Well, we’re all about to find out.

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