The Bad News
* Obviously, Jay Cutler is out for awhile, if not the rest of the regular season.
* The Bears play in the best conference in football. Really! Note the point differentials:
Green Bay: +144
Minnesota: OK, the Vikings are awful.
The Bears have a better differential than the NFC East-leading Giants and Cowboys, and even the AFC East-leading Patriots. If you go by their record, they'd be tied for or in first in any other division save for the NFC West. And I'm still not convinced the 49ers are as good as their 9-1 record—the Niners have been aided by the best turnover differential in football.
The Good News
* Cutler has been solid this season—he's only thrown seven interceptions, among the lowest totals in the league—and his mobility has been a boon to a sack-vulnerable offense. But the Bears are 22nd out of 32 in passing yards per game. The only good team behind the Bears are the statistically anomalous 49ers. If you buy the Football Outsiders' take, Cutler's only the 20th best quarterback in the NFL.
* The team's offensive MVP is Matt Forte, who leads the NFL in yards from scrimage with 1,391. He's not the best running back in the NFL, and he's not the best receiving back in the NFL, but he's excellent at both, and is on track to surpass his career highs in both rushing and receiving; as to the former, he's up a half-yard per carry from last year.
* The Bears' advantages remain defense and special teams, with the best kick/punt returner, and arguably the best kicker, in the NFL.
* In Caleb Hanie's one moment in the spotlight, he really wasn't bad last year, leading an exciting drive against the future Super Bowl champions in the NFC playoffs. Hanie threw two picks—but that was in the wake of four Todd Collins interceptions, so it's worth wondering if he'd have put up a better line without playing from behind. As the Football Outsiders put it after the Bears' loss to the Packers:
Although the standards were not particularly high when Hanie entered the starting lineup, he played about as well as you could have hoped a quarterback with no experience or first-team reps could play in the playoffs against the league's best pass defense. His pick-six to massive defensive lineman B.J. Raji was a product of unfamiliarity; he likely saw Raji's initial push into Olin Kreutz and never dreamt that Raji would then drop back into coverage as a zone blitzer. His later interception was on fourth-and-the-season; about the worst thing you can say is that he didn't give a Packers defender an easy path to a penalty. In 20 dropbacks, he produced six first downs and a touchdown, showing impressive presence in the pocket and a reasonable amount of poise. There is no quarterback controversy in Chicago, but the pick-needy Bears might entertain some interesting offers for Hanie this offseason.
* The Lions play the Packers twice in the last six weeks of the season, as well as the Saints and the Raiders. The Bears get the Packers and the Raiders once, and four mediocre teams.
* Hanie gets four games against average-to-poor pass defenses before their week 16 game in Green Bay (and they're getting shredded in the air this year).
So the Bears are positioned well, and Hanie has a bit of a cushion with a relatively soft schedule and a 7-3 record to work with. Backup quarterbacks are wildly unpredictable, but if Hanie can hang in there—and like Cutler, he's got good mobility—it sounds like Cutler could return for the playoffs.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune