Bears, Texans on tenuous ground

The injuries to Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and Texans quarterback Matt Schaub illustrate how fragile a playoff run can be.

Both teams were positioned perfectly for the playoffs. For the first time since entering the league as an expansion team 10 years ago, the Texans were 7-3 and poised to run away with the AFC South. But then they found out Schaub has a Lisfranc break in his foot, putting the rest of the season in jeopardy. The Bears emerged from Week 11 with a 7-3 record and appeared to be a top NFC wild-card candidate, but after their victory over San Diego, they found out Cutler needed thumb surgery and likely will miss the rest of the regular season.

So how much of a drop-off will there be from Schaub to Matt Leinart and from Cutler to Caleb Hanie?

Normally, the drop-off from a good starter to a decent backup is about six points a game. The Texans average 27.3 points a game. As long as Leinart can keep the team around 21 points a game, it still can reach the playoffs.

The bigger challenge will be in Chicago. The Bears technically average 26.8 points a game, but six points a game come from Devin Hester returns or touchdowns on defense. So really, the Bears have been getting only about 20 points a game from their offense. And that's with Cutler's strong arm and mobility.

Hanie has never started an NFL game. If he can produce 17 points a game, the Bears still might not make the playoffs. The Lions are 7-3 and have great offensive firepower. The Falcons are 6-4 and should get hot down the stretch.

Both the Bears and Texans need to get to at least 10 wins if they want to think playoffs.

From the inbox

Q: What are the chances Matt Leinart will flourish with the Texans' offense, having two RBs on pace for over 1,000 yards and a healthy Andre Johnson back? Can he get the Texans to 12-4 and win a playoff game? If he succeeds, will he land a starting job somewhere next year?

Mak in San Francisco

A: We might be jumping too far ahead on this one. First, I don't know whether Schaub could have gotten this team to 12-4. Had he stayed healthy, I think he could have gotten it to 11-5. The key for Leinart is managing the game. He does have a good running offense. He has a great offensive line. Plus, I think he can do some good things with the Texans' roll-out, play-action offense. But even if he does well, I don't think his performance will put him in the mix for starting quarterback jobs for next season. He needs a longer résumé for that to happen.

Q: How is it that teams such as the Rams and Jaguars manage to go into successive seasons without any tangible NFL-level talent at wide receiver? I understand the concept of building a team that is reliant on running the ball and above-average defense, but how are young QBs like Blaine Gabbert and Sam Bradford supposed to develop when they are throwing to wideouts who would struggle to make the roster on most teams in the NFL?

A.B. in Los Angeles

A: You are completely correct. Bradford and Gabbert are starved for wide receivers. Although it wasn't the plan to give Gabbert the starting job early in his rookie season, no quarterback on the Jaguars' roster really had a chance because of the lack of talent at wide receiver. Mike Thomas is a very good receiver, but there isn't much else. The worst part about the Rams' situation is they designed a five-step, drop-back offense that didn't work because the receivers weren't good enough to get open and the O-line wasn't good enough to protect Bradford. That's why both teams have a combined record of 5-15 and score fewer than 13 points a game.

Q: If Carson Palmer solidifies his position as the permanent starting QB for the Raiders, then what happens to Terrelle Pryor? Is he impressing the coaches enough for them to keep him around or is he trade bait for a future draft?

Keith in Michigan

A: Pryor is in a tough spot. Palmer likely will take the Raiders to the playoffs this season and will be the Raiders' starting quarterback for the next several years. There is no guarantee Pryor will be the backup next season. All you can say is he's under contract for four seasons. There is no trade value because he has no NFL experience. What will be interesting is to see whether coach Hue Jackson decides to bring in a different backup quarterback and give Pryor some work at wide receiver. That's for next year's training camp talk, though. At the moment, Jackson is dealing with winning the AFC West.

Q: A question I think nobody is asking, that they honestly should be asking, if the Colts go 0-16 this season; what does that say about Peyton Manning's legacy in this league? With the '08 Detroit Lions being the only 0-16 team in NFL history, it would say something about the truly elite level of Manning. The Dolphins managed to win games without Dan Marino, and every other team with elite-level quarterbacks has won without them at one point or another. It would be a situation where you can credit Manning with every win the Colts have experienced. It puts a new spin on their win in the Super Bowl against the Bears and the loss against the Saints.

Gary in Middlebury, Ind.

A: You're correct, Gary. Manning's legacy only grows with each loss the Colts suffer without him. My inbox is sprinkled with people suggesting Manning should win the MVP award this season because of the impact of his injury. Manning is a first-ballot Hall of Famer and one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. The 2011 season only confirms that.

Q: With so many issues regarding running back contracts and disputes, why aren't there more incentive-based contracts to help all parties involved. This way a good RB can still earn good money during his short window as a back if he produces and earns more the better he plays. The team also won't mind paying out more, because it means it is getting a lot of production from its main guy. A win-win right?

Rob in Seattle

A: There's a simple answer to that one. The running back would prefer to use the leverage of a holdout to get either more guaranteed money or bigger base salaries. Agents for running backs know teams have to leave enough room under the salary cap for incentives that are achievable. If they are good agents, they will try to get as much of that money as possible. Backs see other positions not having to absorb the risk in order to get a bigger salary. They also know their careers are shorter than those of players at most other positions. Often, first-round backs don't get second contracts with their original teams. It's a cold business world for backs.

Q: Am I the only one who sees good things happening in Cleveland?


A: I do see progress on defense. That's encouraging. It's the offense that's a mess. The debate this offseason will be whether to use the first-round pick on a quarterback. I'd do it if Matt Barkley and Landry Jones are options. It hurt losing guard Eric Steinbach for the season. That loss was understated. The Browns have two Pro Bowl talents on the line with Joe Thomas and Alex Mack. I like their tight ends. Somehow, they've got to upgrade the right side of their offensive line, get better receivers and figure out what to do in the backfield.

Q: After watching two of the most painful games I have ever experienced during my turbulent life as a Jets fan, I'm already readying myself for the 2012 season. What are the chances the Jets address their biggest need -- quarterback? It is clear Mark Sanchez cannot carry this team to the next level, flukey playoff runs built on defense notwithstanding. Are they going to do anything to address his poor play by bringing in a veteran who can actually challenge the Sanchize for the starting job?

Brett in Reno, Nev.

A: Got some bad news for you. Sanchez is going to be the Jets' quarterback next year. And the next year. And the next year. Rex Ryan believes in him. Part of his regression this season is the regression of the talent around him. The receiving corps isn't as fast as last season's group and doesn't get as open as last season's group. The offensive line isn't as good. You know the Jets have to get a new running back next year because this year's backfield isn't working. Don't give up on this season yet. There are six weeks, and the Jets still can make a wild card. As for hoping for a new quarterback, that isn't going to happen.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter @ClaytonESPN.