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Lovie Smith: Don’t cry for Bears

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler dives over top line score third quarter Sunday against Chargers. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler dives over the top of the line to score in the third quarter Sunday against the Chargers. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 23, 2011 8:18AM

Jay Cutler didn’t have a signature performance Sunday at Soldier Field.

The Bears beat a woeful opponent, and the 31-20 victory was arguably the least significant in the team’s five-game winning streak.

But Cutler did showcase why the Bears saw fit to ship quarterback Kyle Orton and three draft picks, including two first-rounders, to the Broncos in April 2009.

He nimbly avoided sacks despite steady pressure. On one play, he flipped a pass to receiver Roy Williams for a third-down conversion with a defender pulling him down by his right leg.

He threaded a third-down touchdown pass to tight end Kellen Davis between two defenders, making a risky play look easy.

And, most of all, he displayed toughness. Cutler took a knee to the head, dived over the pile for a one-yard touchdown in the third quarter and sprinted 40-plus yards to prevent an interception-return touchdown in the fourth.

All against the NFL’s 10th-ranked defense.

Cutler fractured his right thumb on that touchdown-saving play, but he finished the game and even completed his last two passes before medical officials determined the severity of his injury.

He will undergo surgery in the next couple of days, perhaps today.

“It was devastating, it was horrible, and I felt worse for him than I did for us,” middle linebacker Brian Urlacher said. “It stinks for us because he was having such a great year, and he’s our leader. He’s the guy we turn to for pretty much everything, so it was bad for us as a team, but it’s worse for him as an individual.”

Cutler wasn’t quite in the Pro Bowl discussion with Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees playing lights-out and four other NFC quarterbacks having higher passer ratings. But he was building momentum and leading a team many were casting as an NFC wild-card lock.

Now, though, the sentiment is turning, but the Bears have embraced this familiar position.

“No doubt we should be underdogs,” Urlacher said. “I’m sure we will be. We do play good in that role for some reason.”

No one is more of an underdog than Caleb Hanie, an undrafted free agent out of Colorado State originally signed by the Bears in April 2008. He’ll man the starting position, and the Bears will sign a veteran backup while rookie Nathan Enderle continues to develop in the background.

“I would say Caleb is pretty excited about the opportunity,” coach Lovie Smith said. “When you’re the backup, you want to get a chance — not under these circumstances — but you want to get an opportunity to prove [what] you can do. He realizes what’s at stake.”

The Bears are the sixth and last playoff seed in the NFC. With the exception of the 10-0 Packers, only one of their other five upcoming opponents has a winning record, the Raiders at 6-4. The other four (the Chiefs, Seahawks, Broncos and Vikings) have a combined 15-24 record.

The Bears will not put Cutler on injured reserve, which would end his season, and Smith said the “plan is to get him back at the latter part of the regular season.”

But Steve Shin, a hand surgeon based in Los Angeles, said that’s an aggressive timetable.

“That’s really pushing it, especially to be throwing at an elite level after surgery,” said Shin, the hand and wrist consultant to the USC football team, the Dodgers, Lakers, Kings, Angels and Ducks.

If he’s undergoing surgery, then Cutler is likely having a pin, screw or plate inserted to help stabilize the thumb because one of the three bones has been displaced, Shin said.

He added that quarterbacks could begin throwing three weeks after surgery, but they likely wouldn’t return to their pre-injury level until six to eight weeks later.

This week, though, Smith will be preaching to his players to move forward despite Cutler’s injury.

“There’s a lot of good things happening,” Smith said. “Don’t feel sorry for us or anything like that. We have a lot of things in place.”

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