LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) — The Bears are confident Jay Cutler will return this season from a broken thumb on his right throwing hand, so there was a glimmer of hope to go with the big chill that just blew through Chicago.
Even so, this is a major blow for the Bears.
Cutler needs surgery and will be out "for an extended time," coach Lovie Smith said Monday. He would not say when the operation will take place, just "hopefully fairly quick," and provided few details about the specific nature of the injury.
He did make one thing clear, though.
"Is it a season-ending injury? No," Smith said. "From what I've been told right now, we can expect him back at the end of the regular season."
The regular-season finale is Jan. 1 at Minnesota.
With Cutler out, the Bears will turn to backup Caleb Hanie against Oakland this weekend and they will also look to bring in a veteran quarterback.
Hanie has thrown just 14 regular-season passes in four years. He made some plays in the NFC championship game against Green Bay last season after Cutler was injured and Todd Collins struggled, helping keep the Bears in it, but Chicago ultimately lost to the Packers.
Cutler was injured trying to help tackle Antoine Cason on an interception return in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 31-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers, and Smith was unaware of the extent of the injury until after the game.
Cutler stayed in and finished with 286 yards passing. He threw for two touchdowns and ran for another while leading the Bears (7-3) to their fifth straight win, but his injury is a hit for a team that made a big leap into contention in the NFC.
"It's devastating," linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "It's horrible, and I felt worse for him than I did for us. It stinks for us because he's having such a great year. He's our leader. He's the guy we turn to for pretty much everything."
The Bears also lost long snapper Patrick Mannelly to a season-ending torn anterior-cruciate ligament in his knee, but the big news, obviously, was Cutler's injury.
"We're going to miss a great player for a period of time," Smith said.
With an 11-point lead and the ball on the San Diego 30, Cutler was trying to hit Johnny Knox, but the receiver slipped. Cason picked the ball off at the 20 and returned it 64 yards before being pushed out of bounds by Matt Forte at the Bears 16.
Cutler helped prevent a touchdown on the return, but paid a heavy price. He raced over and he got knocked to the ground by linebacker Donald Butler as he pushed Cason with his right hand, which smacked the turf as he fell. Major Wright intercepted Philip Rivers in the end zone three plays later, and the Bears ran 71/2 minutes off the clock on the next possession, with Cutler completing two passes on the drive, to Matt Spaeth and Forte.
"That's a huge play in the game," Urlacher said. "Probably a 10-point swing right there, with him making that play. I wish he wouldn't have made it, I'll tell you that much. I'd take it back right now, let the guy score, because we still got the lead. It was 31-27 if he scores. It was a great play by him to keep him out of the end zone and the effort he made on the play, but like I said, we'd trade it for a touchdown right now."
Instead, they're turning to Hanie and looking to bring in someone with more experience.
No word on Brett Favre and for what it's worth, Kurt Warner isn't available.
The quarterback for Mike Martz's "Greatest Show On Turf" in St. Louis made it clear with this post on Twitter he's not coming out of retirement: "I am bummed 4 (at)JayCutler6 ! Been there 2 many times & he was playing great fball! Yes, I know & luv offense but NO I am NOT unretiring!"
This isn't completely new territory for the Bears.
Rex Grossman missed most of the year in 2005 after breaking an ankle in the preseason, forcing Chicago to go with rookie Kyle Orton, a fourth-round draft pick out of Purdue. The Bears ran a simplified offense and went 10-5 with him as their starter thanks to a dominant defense and a solid running game. They won the NFC North at 11-5 and ultimately fell to Carolina in the playoffs.
Losing Cutler is different, though. He has been throwing well and his line has kept him upright during their winning streak.
One bright spot for the Bears: They are in a relatively weak part of the schedule.
Winning at Oakland won't be easy, and they still have to visit Green Bay on Dec. 25. The other games are at home against Kansas City on Dec. 4, at Denver the following week, at home against Seattle on Dec.18 and the finale at Minnesota.
"It's kind of one of those things that's tough to deal with, when you lose a guy like Jay who's been playing really well, and a leader on the team," linebacker Nick Roach said. "But it's kind of one of those things that happen in football every week. Somebody loses a big part of their team, and that's why you have other guys on the roster who can play."