The Chicago Bears lost out on a chance to obtain Kyle Orton when the veteran quarterback became available just over a week ago. Now they may have to try to prevent their onetime starter from beating them on the playing field.
Orton will be in uniform for the first time as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs when his new team heads to Solider Field to take on the contending Bears Sunday in a matchup of 2010 playoff participants that have been recently beset by health concerns at the game's most pivotal position.
Both the Chiefs and Bears had their regular quarterbacks go down with hand injuries within a one-week span, with Kansas City's Matt Cassel sustaining a season-ending fracture in his club's 17-10 loss to Denver on Nov. 13 and Chicago triggerman Jay Cutler breaking his right thumb in the defending NFC North champion's 31-20 victory over San Diego the following Sunday. That prompted each to put in a waiver claim for Orton, cut loose by the Broncos on Nov. 22 after being supplanted by Tim Tebow for the No. 1 job, with the Chiefs winning the bid by virtue of the worse record than the Bears.
Orton, who compiled a 21-12 record in 33 starts over a four-year span with Chicago before being dealt to Denver as part of the blockbuster 2009 trade that landed Cutler in the Windy City, will face his former team for the first time since the swap, though it's uncertain as to if he'll actually play. Chiefs head coach Todd Haley told reporters during the week that he intends to keep holdover Tyler Palko under center for the immediate future, despite a pair of shaky showings in place of Cassel.
"Tyler is our starter; we are getting Kyle ready to play," said Haley on Wednesday. "He's not like a guy that's been here for a couple of years. It's a different situation that way, so we are getting him ready to play. He might have to play and he might not."
While Haley has been so far reluctant to use Orton, who was inactive for the Chiefs' 13-9 home defeat to Pittsburgh last Sunday, he may have a short leash on Palko if the journeyman struggles for a third consecutive week. The left- handed passer has thrown three interceptions in each of his two substitute starts and failed to lead the offense to a touchdown in losses to both the Steelers and New England.
Those setbacks are part of a untimely four-game skid for Kansas City that has the 2010 AFC West winners three games back of first-place Oakland in the division standings with just five to play.
"We've got to do it by whatever means possible and if it takes playing three quarterbacks and going [in the] Wildcat [formation] 20 plays, we've got to do that, and then the week after this it'll be a similar deal," Haley remarked.
With Cutler sidelined for a minimum of three more weeks and perhaps the entire regular season, the Bears have turned the offense over to seldom-used backup Caleb Hanie. The fourth-year pro had a rough beginning to his NFL starting debut in this past Sunday's 25-20 loss at Oakland, tossing three early interceptions that helped place Chicago at a five-point halftime deficit that later swelled to double digits, but did direct three scoring drives in the fourth quarter and finished with 254 yards and two touchdowns on 18-of-36 passing.
"The good news is he got better as the game went on," said Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz. "He had some miscues there early. He has to memory-bank that stuff and fix it, and he'll do that. I was really pleased with him in the second half. He did a much better job."
Last week's loss ended a string of five consecutive wins that vaulted Chicago back into the thick of the NFC playoff race. The Bears enter Sunday's test tied with rival Detroit and Atlanta in the battle for the conference's two Wild Card berths.
The Chiefs and Bears have squared off 10 times previously, with Chicago winning six of those bouts that includes a 20-10 triumph at Soldier Field in 2007. Kansas City also dropped a 20-17 road decision to the Bears in 1999 and is just 1-4 all-time in Chicago, with the lone positive outcome a 21-10 victory on Dec. 29, 1990. The Chiefs last bested the Bears in 2003 via a 31-3 rout at Arrowhead Stadium.
Chicago has a 5-4 advantage in its all-time series with Kansas City, but was a 31-3 road loser when the teams last met, in 2003. The Bears won the previous meeting, taking a 20-17 decision at Soldier Field in 1999. The Chiefs are 1-3 all-time in Chicago, with their only win there coming by a 21-10 count in 1990.
Bears head coach Lovie Smith won his only previous meeting with the Chiefs with the above-mentioned 2007 verdict. Haley, who served as Chicago's wide receivers coach for three seasons from 2001-03, will be taking on both the Bears and Smith for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE CHIEFS HAVE THE BALL
Though Palko (444 passing yards, 0 TD, 6 INT) has displayed toughness and good accuracy, having completed nearly 65 percent of his throws in his two starts, the 28-year-old has also been responsible for seven turnovers during that stretch and the Chiefs have mustered only four field goals under his direction. If those results don't improve, Haley may not hesitate to turn to the more experienced Orton (979 passing yards, 8 TD, 7 INT with Denver) despite his unfamiliarity with the offense and the fact that he hasn't attempted a pass since October. Kansas City's also going to have to run the football better than they did their last time out to have a chance this week, as the backfield trio of ex-Bear Thomas Jones (289 rushing yards), Dexter McCluster (364 rushing yards, 32 receptions) and Jackie Battle (456 rushing yards, 1 TD) combined for a paltry 85 yards on 31 carries against the Steelers, and none had a rush of over nine yards. The Chiefs do have a pair of quality wide receivers on the roster in 2010 Pro Bowl honoree Dwayne Bowe (55 receptions, 819 yards, 4 TD) and offseason addition Steve Breaston (43 receptions, 2 TD), but the passing game as a whole has lacked explosion even when Cassel was taking the snaps. For the season Kansas City ranks just 27th in both yards through the air (182.8 ypg) and yards per pass attempt (6.3).
One of the main reasons for Chicago's midseason resurgence has been the return to prominence of a seasoned defense that seems to have solved its issues from the outset of this campaign, particularly in stopping the run. The Bears have yielded a scant 67.8 rushing yards over their past six games and held five of those opponents under 80 yards on the ground, with Oakland's potent run attack managing just 73 against the stern front seven headlined by the outstanding linebacker duo of Brian Urlacher (70 tackles, 3 INT) and Lance Briggs (80 tackles, 1 INT). Coordinator Rod Marinelli's unit has also been adept at forcing turnovers as of late, having come up with 12 interceptions and 16 total takeaways in its past five assignments. Special-teams stalwart Corey Graham has netted three picks in three games filling in for the injured D.J. Moore (37 tackles, 3 INT) at nickel back, while second-year safety Major Wright (37 tackles, 3 INT) has three interceptions in a four-week span in stabilizing the back end along with rookie Chris Conte (24 tackles, 1 INT). Chicago also recorded four sacks against the Raiders last week, two from All-Pro end Julius Peppers (27 tackles, 8 sacks) and one from athletic tackle Henry Melton (15 tackles, 5 sacks).
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
With Hanie (254 passing yards, 2 TD, 3 INT) still getting acclimated to his new role as a starter, the Bears figure to lean heavily on their strong running back tandem of Matt Forte (985 rushing yards, 52 receptions, 4 total TD) and Marion Barber (237 rushing yards, 5 TD) for both this game and beyond. Both players are coming off effective performances in teaming up for 122 yards on 22 attempts last week, and the invaluable Forte brings an added dimension to Martz's offense with his exceptional abilities as a receiver, Hanie showed a bit of versatility as well by rushing for 50 yards on five scrambles against the Raiders, and the 26-year-old proved he can make plays with his arm as well by connecting with speedy wideout Johnny Knox (28 receptions, 2 TD) for two long gains -- a 29-yard touchdown and an 81-yard strike that set up another score. Knox ended with 145 yards on four grabs and is averaging an NFL-best 22.2 yards per catch as the best deep threat among the Chicago receivers, with veteran Roy Williams (24 receptions, 1 TD) and the sure-handed Earl Bennett (18 receptions, 1 TD) joining Forte as the main underneath targets. Hanie did complete only half of his 36 throws last week, however, a percentage he'll be aiming to upgrade in his second start.
The Kansas City defense that's coming off an inspired effort in the Pittsburgh loss will look to make life difficult for Chicago's young quarterback this week. The Chiefs permitted a season-low 290 total yards to the Steelers and held the defending AFC champions to a 3-for-11 conversion rate on third downs, while standout cornerback Brandon Flowers (45 tackles, 4 INT, 17 PD) and nickel specialist Javier Arenas (21 tackles) were each credited with two of the team's 10 pass breakups on the night. The group also did a good job keeping the running game in check, with inside linebacker Derrick Johnson (92 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) and rookie outside starter Justin Houston (32 tackles) having particularly strong outings. Kansas City does rank just 26th against the run (133.7 ypg) for the year, however, and has just one interception over its last four contests, and finding a reliable complement to pass-rushing terror Tamba Hali (44 tackles, 7 sacks) has been a season-long problem. The Chiefs have amassed an NFL-low 13 sacks as a team thus far in 2011, with Hali accounting for over half that total.
KEYS TO THE GAME
It goes without saying that a team's success is often predicated on the play of its quarterback, and both the Chiefs and Bears have questions to answer at the position with their regulars currently sidelined. Though Hanie did do some good things in his first career start, he'll still need to improve his accuracy and cut down on his turnover total if Chicago is to stay afloat in the playoff chase. Whether it's Palko or Orton directing the Kansas City offense on Sunday, it's imperative the team gets better production at the position than what it's received two weeks.
Turnovers. With two signal-callers that threw three interceptions last week, this aspect could easily have a large bearing on the outcome of this game. Creating mistakes has been a strong suit for the Chicago defense for much of this season, and the Bears are 4-0 when recording three or more takeaways. The Chiefs have also been far more formidable when forcing errors out of the opposition, with the team generating 11 turnovers during its four-game win streak in October but only three over the course of its present skid.
Devin Hester. There may not be a player more capable of having an impact on this matchup than Chicago's extraordinary return man, who's scored a touchdown taking back either a punt or kickoff in three of the Bears' last four home tilts. That's a major concern for a Kansas City special-teams outfit that allowed a punt return score to New England's Julian Edelman two weeks back and hasn't been very good in coverage.
Having scored a mere 25 points over their four straight losses, the Chiefs don't seem to pose much of a threat on the road against a Chicago team that's won five of its last six games and played a division leader tough while having to travel last week. Kansas City's determined performance while being undermanned against the Steelers was a strong indicator that Haley's charges still have some fight left in them, however, and having Hanie instead of Cutler at quarterback does level the playing field somewhat. The Bears still have more weapons than the Chiefs on offense and a superior defense and special teams to boot, and really shouldn't have too much trouble winning this game as long as Hanie doesn't face-plant. Look for Orton to come in at some point and give his new team a bit of a spark, but not enough of one to stop its recent losing ways.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bears 24, Chiefs 19