SAN FRANCISCO – When Jay Cutler got hurt last November, the Chicago Bears' promising season fell apart fast, with no capable backup behind him.
The Bears went from 7-3 and looking toward the playoffs to losing five of their final six to finish 8-8 and with no postseason berth.
Chicago acquired an insurance policy during the offseason, and now the Bears (7-2) will see if that move pays off. Jason Campbell is set to make his first NFL start in more than a year in place of the concussed Cutler in a key NFC showdown with the San Francisco 49ers (6-2-1) on Monday night at Candlestick Park.
It's not like Campbell hasn't been in big games before. He has 70 career starts to his name in eight NFL seasons.
"It's a tough opponent we have Monday night. No one said it was going to be easy," Campbell said. "So, we've got to go there, we've got to fight and play together as a unit."
That was something Chicago couldn't do when Cutler broke his right thumb last fall, with Caleb Hanie playing in his place.
The Bears can't afford a repeat of their late-season demise, and that's why they brought in Campbell.
"We didn't handle last year well," coach Lovie Smith said. "Of course, it's documented we didn't. That's why we went out and we felt like we've upgraded the position. I know the guys have a lot of confidence in Jason. He's played a lot of football, started a lot of games, so yeah, we're hopeful. That's why we can't wait to get to this game. Injuries do happen, and we'll see exactly where we are, but we think we're going to be OK.
Campbell went 10-5 over his last 15 starts with the Oakland Raiders, completing 60.3 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns, eight interceptions and an 89.6 passer rating. He missed the final 10 games with a broken collarbone, then became a free agent and joined the Bears.
San Francisco is fully aware of his resume, and the Niners' defense doesn't expect many new looks with Campbell under center.
"We're going to take it as he's the starter, and we're going to go out there and do what we're supposed to do," 49ers safety Donte Whitner said. "He's a veteran guy with a big, strong arm. I never felt he got his fair shake in Washington, the guys he had around him, and Oakland, also. Once he got injured, they just shipped him out and brought another guy in. We understand that he can make plays, and we can't go into this game thinking we have it made and the backup quarterback is in there.
"That's when you get embarrassed."
For San Francisco, all signs point to quarterback Alex Smith starting after he also sustained a concussion last week in a 24-24 tie with St. Louis. He was still listed as questionable in Saturday's formal practice report, and spent the week practicing in a non-contact black jersey. The decision on Smith's status might not be made until Monday, within hours of kickoff.
And Lovie Smith insists all Chicago can do is prepare for the position, not one quarterback or another. Colin Kaepernick is Smith's backup.
This week, 49ers running back Frank Gore was rooting for both starting quarterbacks to get healthy in a hurry.
"We want their best, like they want our best," Gore said. "I know they will want Alex Smith to play. We want Cutler to play."
San Francisco got another scare when coach Jim Harbaugh missed most of Thursday to undergo a minor procedure for an irregular heartbeat. He returned Friday, energized and eager to get back to work.
Harbaugh said he spent extra time studying Chicago at home to make up for the half-day he missed.
"You're not here and the rest of the team's out here practicing, that's not a good feeling," he said. "It's like, I've had that dream before many times where it's like you're supposed to be taking a test, or the team's out there practicing and you're not out there."
San Francisco's defense knows it must slow down wideout Brandon Marshall, because Campbell will certainly target him with his 67 catches for 904 yards and seven touchdowns.
"He's their best receiver by far," 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "And I'm sure he'll be looking for him."
Gore still has memories of Cutler's five-interception day in a 10-6 San Francisco win at home the last time these teams met three years ago — and Gore's 14-yard touchdown run during a 104-yard night accounted for the lone TD of the game.
Plenty has changed since then.
"Both teams were down that year, both teams didn't have a good team. Now, we're doing good, they're doing good. It will be a good game," Gore said. "They're coming off a loss. We tied. Both teams want to come out on top. Two good teams get to see how it goes on Monday."
For Campbell, getting off to a fast start would be ideal against one of the NFL's top defenses. Everybody knows it could be a low-scoring night with two teams allowing fewer than 15 points per game.
"It's all about coming out in the first quarter and trying to set a tempo," Campbell said. "As a quarterback, you got to not try to dictate the game, but do everything you possibly can to get your own rhythm, by not forcing things and everything like that.
"But, at the same time, just have fun. You got to let it hang out in a game like this."
AP Sports Writer Andrew Seligman in Chicago contributed to this story.
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