- Associated Press - Monday, November 21, 2011

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.

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