Cutler injury, Suh situation clouds NFC playoff picture

The holiday season may only be a few days filled occasion for the Atlanta Falcons.

The playoff hopefuls received a nice gift from both the football gods and the NFL's schedule-makers by having the opportunity to host a sinking Minnesota Vikings team without All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson on Thanksgiving weekend, and more good fortune seems to becoming Atlanta's way thanks to another untimely injury at the quarterback position for the team's next opponent, the Houston Texans.

Though there were plenty of storylines to take from a captivating Week 12 slate that gave its hungry viewers helpings of good (Tim Tebow leading the remarkably-resilient Denver Broncos to yet another close win), the very good (the Green Bay Packers asserting their dominance once again), the bad (the Indianapolis Colts continuing to justify a rightful place among the league's all-time standard-bearers of futility) and the ugly (Ndamukong Suh's latest disgraceful display of completely losing his self control), the center stage was reserved for a pair of backup quarterbacks on contending clubs, one a fallen former first-round pick getting a long-awaited chance of redemption and the other an undrafted career clipboard-holder finally getting a shot at proving himself.

Alas, neither Matt Leinart nor Caleb Hanie's tales had happy endings on Sunday, with the former victimized by the cruelest of plot twists in his first NFL start in nearly two full years. The just-promoted Texans' signal-caller, elevated to a first-string role due to an unfortunate season-ending foot sprain to Matt Schaub, couldn't even make it to halftime of his return before fracturing his left collarbone in Houston's 20-13 victory at Jacksonville.

Hanie, in his fourth year of an apprenticeship behind first Kyle Orton and now Jay Cutler with the Chicago Bears, also had a first half to forget in his professional starting debut. The inexperienced 26-year-old, pressed into service following a fractured finger Cutler sustained near the end of last Sunday's win over San Diego, threw three interceptions in his team's initial seven drives against the Oakland Raiders, while three other possessions ended swiftly with three-and-outs.

To his credit, Hanie did show some resolve as well as some skill later on in the Bears' 25-20 setback to the current AFC West front-runners, directing the offense to three fourth-quarter scoring drives that nearly brought Chicago back from a double-digit deficit. He finished the day with 254 yards and a pair of touchdown passes, though his 50 percent completion percentage (18-of-36) and three turnovers are ample evidence there's still lots of room for improvement.

"He gave us an opportunity to win at the end on the road against a good defense," Bears head coach Lovie Smith said of Hanie afterward. "We can build off of this performance."

With Cutler likely sidelined until at least the New Year's Day finale against Minnesota, Smith is going to need his new field general to make some strides in order for Chicago to make a repeat postseason trip. The defending NFC North champions are part of what looks to be a four-team logjam for the conference's two Wild Card berths, with Detroit and the loser of two division battles -- Dallas and the New York Giants in the East and New Orleans and Atlanta in the West -- also right in the thick of the mix.

While Smith and his core of veteran players have publicly declared faith that Hanie can steer Chicago through an upcoming stretch run that's challenging but not overly treacherous, the Bears' behind-the-scenes actions say otherwise. The organization reportedly put in a claim for the more battled-tested Kyle Orton after the deposed Denver starter was waived last week, amid additional whispers that the onetime Bear had asked for his release from the Broncos in the hopes of rejoining his ex-team in the wake of Cutler's injury.

Orton was claimed by Kansas City before Chicago had a chance to make a bid, however, and in an ironic event, is expected to make his first start as a Chief against the Bears this coming Sunday at Soldier Field. It will also be the well-traveled quarterback's first encounter with Chicago since being shipped to the Broncos as part of the blockbuster trade that landed Cutler in the Windy City in April of 2009.

Meanwhile, the hard-luck Texans will attempt to tread water atop an AFC South lot that contains no serious threats other than 6-5 Tennessee with wide-eyed rookie T.J. Yates at the controls for at least until the postseason neophytes can find a more experienced solution not named Favre. The 2011 fifth-round choice, who mustered just 32 passing yards in the second half of the Jacksonville game with Houston nursing a 10-point lead most of the way, is the top candidate to be under center when the Falcons head to Reliant Stadium in a favorite's role that few would have expected just a few weeks ago.

Cutler's absence also provides a potential boost for Atlanta, which is now tied with the Bears at 7-4 but lost to Chicago in the season opener following a mistake-marred effort, as may the multiple-game suspension Suh is expected to draw for his senseless stomp on Green Bay offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith that forced the 2010 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year's ejection from Detroit's 27-15 Thanksgiving Day loss to the Packers. The Lions are dead even with both the Bears and Falcons in the conference standings entering a critical showdown at New Orleans this coming weekend, one in which they'll almost certainly have to try to fend off the NFL's most prolific aerial attack this season without their best interior pass rusher.

While Suh's latest episode of bad behavior isn't anywhere close to as egregious as then-Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth's malicious maiming of a helmet-less Andre Gurode in a Titans-Dallas game in 2006 -- an act that garnered the oft-underachieving lineman a five-game ban from the league office -- the talented but unrestrained second-year standout's history of borderline- dirty tactics and his delusional denial of culpability after Thursday's incident has really left Commissioner Roger Goodell and his disciplinary staff no other choice but to hand out a punishment significantly more harsh than an ineffective fine.

If it were a player without a track record or of lesser stature, a "boys will be boys" pooh-poohing of the matter would be understandable. This case involves a repeat offender in a high-profile situation, however, and everyone -- be it the players, coaches, media or fans -- will be watching and weighing judgement on the league's response.

With that in mind, it's virtually impossible for Goodell not to sit him down for at least one game regardless of the fact he's already been penalized for nearly half of one because of the ejection. And when hearing Suh's incredibly lame excuse for his rationale, it's equally as difficult to hold any sympathy for whatever sentence he receives.

It's a decision the Falcons and the Bears probably wouldn't mind, or the Packers for that matter. Or Jim Harbaugh, who surely won't be exchanging Christmas cards with Detroit head coach Jim Schwartz in the coming weeks. Or the Broncos after being unmercifully taunted by Schwartz's bold and brash team in late October, just prior to Denver's puzzling but inspiring run to contention in the AFC West.

Those reactions will be about the only certainty in advance of a playoff race that's about to get real interesting real soon.