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Good starts critical for Hanie, Leinart in their debuts

Every Thursday, Steve Wyche examines a handful of the week's premier matchups on the field.

Backup QBs vs. spotlight

Bears backup quarterback Caleb Hanie made an impromptu appearance in last season's NFC Championship Game and nearly rallied Chicago to a victory over eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay. Though Sunday's game against the Raiders isn't of the same magnitude, his performance in his first NFL start could have the same impact as it relates to Chicago's playoff livelihood.

Matt Leinart is in a similar situation filling in for Texans starter Matt Schaub when Houston faces Jacksonville. The singular game might not matter much but the outcome still could point the AFC South-leading Texans in which direction they're headed without Schaub, who was placed on injured reserve Wednesday.

Hanie's situation will be more scrutinized because he's taking over for injured Jay Cutler (thumb) on a team that's playing at a scary level. The Bears also are facing an Oakland team in position to further its lead in the AFC West and put Chicago on precarious playoff footing.

Although Chicago owns the head-to-head tiebreaker over Atlanta, a Bears' loss and a Falcons' win over the Vikings moves Atlanta a step closer to the playoffs at the Bears' expense. If Hanie plays poorly -- as Kansas City's Tyler Palko did against New England on Monday -- a heightened sense of worry could set in and that could be worse than a loss in which Hanie played well.

The Raiders will jam the interior with at least eight defenders and make the Bears throw to beat them. And until Hanie takes advantage of that scheme, Chicago's remaining opponents will all follow suit. Oakland's front is fierce and it won't be comfortable for Hanie. General Manager Jerry Angelo told me that Hanie has looked comfortable in practice and his familiarity with the system and the players works in his favor, but nobody knows how he'll react come showtime.

Against the Packers in the NFC title game, Hanie was playing mostly on instinct. From here, until (or if) Cutler comes back, he'll be preparing as the starter. That's a big change and how his coaching staff and teammates compensate and manage him could go a long way.

As for Leinart, he gets behind the wheel of a car in cruise control. The Texans are in solid control of the division. It's up to Leinart whether he treats the comfortable situation he's in as pressure or as an opportunity to re-establish himself and take Houston to its first postseason.

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Facing Jacksonville might seem like a pretty easy starting point, but don't be fooled. The Jaguars can't score but they can defend. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has done an outstanding job with a defense that was a mess over the past few seasons. Jacksonville is ranked third in overall defense and the looks he'll throw at Leinart won't be friendly.

Leinart is going to have to throw early against the Jags to soften the defense and give Arian Foster and Ben Tate running room. He'll be put in a timing-based passing flow where he'll work out of a moving pocket more than as a dropback thrower. Having Andre Johnson back should help.

Both of these backups have chances to make or break their teams' seasons and their 2011 debuts could begin shaping their paths.

Tim Tebow vs. Philip Rivers

Well, that's how Denver's AFC West game at San Diego will be billed. In reality, it's more about the struggling Chargers' offense against the surging Broncos' defense.

While Tebow has generated some late-game drives to bring Denver to 5-5 and a game up on San Diego, the Broncos' defense has kept those games close enough to give Tebow the chance for his heroics. Rookie outside linebacker Von Miller and end Elvis Dumervil have made the splash plays, but players like linebacker D.J. Williams, tackle Broderick Bunkley, corners Andre Goodman and Champ Bailey have been the base of what's gone right lately.

In three of their four victories in the five games Tebow has started, the defense has allowed 15 points or fewer. Miller has 4.5 of his 9.5 sacks in that stretch.

That defense faces the Chargers' banged-up offensive line and a quarterback whose mistakes seem to compound every game. Rivers has a league-high 17 interceptions. Bailey and Goodman match up well with San Diego's wide receivers, which could allow Denver to get pressure on Rivers.

A loss by the reeling Chargers at home to Denver could be the final blow to take them out of playoff contention. But a victory could set up a typical San Diego late-season run.

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