Though the Chicago Bears are riding high on a five-game winning streak, they suffered a potentially very damaging loss their most recent time out.
With quarterback Jay Cutler sidelined indefinitely with a broken thumb, lightly-tested backup Caleb Hanie will try to keep the Bears on course for a repeat playoff appearance in the interim. The fourth-year pro's first challenge takes place Sunday at the Oakland Coliseum against a Raiders team that's seeking to maintain a strong run of its own.
Chicago's 31-20 triumph over slumping San Diego last week was marred by Cutler's unfortunate injury, which the strong-armed signal-caller sustained while attempting a tackle on an interception return in the fourth quarter. He underwent surgery on his right hand on Wednesday, with the Bears optimistically hoping he'll be back for the club's regular-season finale on Jan. 1.
An offense that's averaged 32.2 points over Chicago's current surge will now rest in the hands of Hanie, who's never started an NFL game and has attempted only 14 passes in the regular season, for the time being. The undrafted 26- year-old did see extensive action after relieving an injured Cutler in last January's NFC Championship Game, completing 13-of-20 throws for 153 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions in the Bears' loss to rival Green Bay.
"I'm being asked to come in and keep the offense's momentum going the way it is," Hanie said. "It's not like we're struggling offensively to where I've got to come in and make all these plays and save the season and start winning some games. We're on a good roll. We had momentum and as long as I do the things I need to do and get the ball to the guys that make plays, that's my main job."
Although Chicago's chances of capturing a second straight NFC North title are slim due to the prowess of the still-unbeaten Packers, it does enter the stretch run in good position to claim one of the conference's two Wild Card berths. The Bears enter Sunday's tilt with a half-game edge on Detroit for the No. 5 overall seed, with Atlanta and the New York Giants one game back in the race.
The Raiders are presently on track to reach the postseason for the first time since 2002, thanks to two straight victories that has the Silver and Black atop the AFC West, one game ahead of surprising Denver.
"We know that we control our own destiny," said safety Michael Huff. "We're leading right now and we've got to keep this thing going and hopefully get to the playoffs."
Oakland assumed control in the division with a critical 24-17 decision over the Chargers on Nov. 10, then held its advantage by posting a 27-21 win at Minnesota this past Sunday behind a defense that forced five Vikings turnovers and sacked rookie quarterback Christian Ponder five times.
Both of those wins came on the road, however, where the Raiders are 4-1 thus far in 2001. They've lost their last two tests at the Coliseum, falling to fellow division inhabitants Kansas City and Denver with a Week 8 bye in between prior to getting back on track in the San Diego game.
Chicago has prevailed in each of its last two bouts as the visitor, including a 24-18 verdict over Tampa Bay on Oct. 23 in a game held at London's Wembley Stadium.
The all-time series between the Bears and Raiders is knotted at 6-6, with Chicago drawing even by virtue of a 17-6 win at the Coliseum in 2007. The Bears also came out on top by a 24-21 score in a 2003 encounter with Oakland in the Windy City, with the Raiders last besting Chicago via a 24-17 result at home on Sept. 26, 1999.
Bears head coach Lovie Smith won his only prior meeting with the Raiders with that 2007 victory, while Oakland's Hue Jackson will be opposing both Chicago and Smith for the first time in his present position.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
Chicago's offense was already centered around the skills of running back Matt Forte (926 rushing yards, 46 receptions, 4 total TD), who's accounted for more than 40 percent of the team's overall yardage total, and the versatile playmaker figures to be relied upon even more heavily with the relatively- inexperienced Hanie now at the controls. The NFL's leader in yards from scrimmage (1,391) is averaging a solid 5.0 yards per carry in his featured role and is an outstanding receiver to boot, having amassed an additional 465 yards on a team-best 46 catches. Hanie should also be able to count on reliable slot man Earl Bennett (17 receptions, 1 TD), who's averaged 83.7 receiving yards in three games since returning from a chest injury, while enigmatic wideout Roy Williams (21 receptions, 1 TD) has been more of factor as of late and is coming off a season-best five-catch, 62-yard output in the San Diego win. The big-play threat of the receiving corps is Johnny Knox (24 receptions, 1 TD), with the speedster averaging nearly 20 yards per catch, while reserve running back Marion Barber (174 rushing yards, 5 TD) has scored four touchdowns over the Bears' five-game win streak as a short-yardage specialist. A reworked offensive line has improved greatly in protection over the course of the year, with Cutler having been sacked only twice in the last three games.
Hanie may not have the easiest of assignments in his first start, as the Raiders have held opposing quarterbacks to only a 52.5 percent completion rate on the year, the second-lowest mark of any team. Fleet-footed cornerback Stanford Routt (33 tackles, 2 INT, 9 PD) has put together a fine season as the top player in a secondary that's been able to withstand several injuries, while middle linebacker Rolando McClain (51 tackles, 1 sack) has been credited with 10 passes defensed in showing himself to be an asset in coverage as well. As last week's performance showed, Oakland is also adept at pressuring the passer, with outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley (41 tackles, 6 sacks) just two games removed from a four-sack outburst against the Chargers and tackles Tommy Kelly (30 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and Desmond Bryant (21 tackles, 3 sacks) combining for four takedowns of Ponder last Sunday. The Raiders have been less consistent in stopping the run, having permitted a concerning 5.2 yards per attempt and an average of 131.6 rushing yards per game (26th overall).
WHEN THE RAIDERS HAVE THE BALL
A lingering foot sprain to primary running back Darren McFadden has done little to slow down an Oakland ground attack that's third in the NFL in rushing yards (156.8 ypg), as capable fill-in Michael Bush (599 rushing yards, 16 receptions, 6 TD) has flourished in his counterpart's absence. The 245-pound bruiser backed up a 30-carry, 157-yard explosion against the Chargers in Week 10 by racking up 109 yards on another 30 totes in last Sunday's win, and displayed excellent pass-catching skills as well by compiling 85 yards on three catches in the San Diego game. He's in line for another heavy workload this week, with McFadden set to miss a fourth straight contest. Quarterback Carson Palmer (911 passing yards, 6 TD, 7 INT) has done his part as well lately, with the midseason pickup hitting on a sharp 72.1 percent of his passes and tossing just one interception over the past two victories after a rough start to his Raiders tenure. The veteran triggerman may have to deal with a makeshift group of receivers this week, though, with the speedy Jacoby Ford likely out for a second straight week due to a sprained foot of his own and promising rookie Denarius Moore (24 receptions, 4 TD) considered a game-time decision with an ankle sprain. The team did get good news on leading receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (31 receptions, 1 TD), however, as the 2009 first-round pick was medically cleared on Friday after sustaining a concussion and strained neck following a nasty collision against the Vikings.
Oakland's potent ground game will be put to the test by a resurgent Chicago defense that's been stifling against the run during its current tear. The Bears have limited foes to 80 rushing yards or fewer in four of their last five games, with San Diego managing just 52 yards on 17 carries against a veteran unit that's once again led by the accomplished linebacker combo of seven-time Pro Bowl honoree Brian Urlacher (65 tackles, 3 INT) in the middle and the rangy Lance Briggs (74 tackles, 1 INT) on the weak side. Chicago has also been incredibly opportunistic in recent weeks, having come up with 11 interceptions and 15 total takeaways over its last four wins. Strong safety Major Wright (30 tackles, 3 INT) has a pick in three consecutive games and has emerged as a stabilizing presence to a secondary that also possesses a top-notch cornerback in Charles Tillman (66 tackles, 1 INT, 9 PD), while All-Pro end Julius Peppers (22 tackles, 6 sacks) spearheads a pass rush that has been disappointingly spotty throughout the year. The Bears have just 20 sacks as a team and have surrendered an average of 270.7 passing yards per game, the third-most in the league.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The Bears would greatly aid Hanie's cause in his first career start if they're able to establish an effective running game, and doing so would enhance the team's chance of leaving the Coliseum with a victory as well. Oakland has held its opponents under 125 rushing yards six times this year, and won on every occasion. On the other hand, the Raiders have given up a whopping 211 yards on the ground on average in their four 2011 losses. Chicago is 3-1 this season when Forte eclipses 100 rushing yards in a game.
Turnovers. Oakland's tough to beat when it's not beating itself, owning a 6-0 record when finishing either even or on the positive side of the turnover battle this season. Doing so this week may not be easy, however, as the Bears own a plus-11 takeaway-to-giveaway ratio on the year and have been forcing mistakes at a prodigious clip during their winning streak. With a backup quarterback under center, Chicago's going to need its defense to continue to come up with game-changing plays.
The Hester factor. Chicago's boast the best return man in the business in the incomparable Devin Hester, who's averaging an astounding 21.2 yards and scored two touchdowns on punt returns this year. The Raiders have not been good in punt coverage, having allowed an average of 14.5 yards per runback and two scores, and it would be in their best interest to kick away and not tempt fate.
Since Hanie is such an unknown quantity, it's difficult to predict how the Bears will fare here. And considering how unpredictable the Raiders have been over the course of the year, particularly in double-digit home losses to seemingly inferior teams in Kansas City and Denver, it's not easy to presume just how they'll perform either. Those two defeats did come with an unprepared Palmer still in the process of learning Jackson's offense, however, and he's been noticeably better in the two weeks since. That should give Oakland an edge at the all-important quarterback position, and its strong pass rush could very well cause some problems for Hanie as well. It probably won't come easy, as Chicago's defense has been playing at a very high level and its special teams are always terrific, but the Raiders' experience under center and getting to play at the Black Hole may be a bit too tough for the Bears to overcome.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Raiders 23, Bears 20