Monday, January 17, 2011
Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler meet at peak
By Seth Wickersham ESPN.com
ATLANTA -- He says it as a joke. And Aaron Rodgers says it all the time: in the huddle, on the sideline, pregame, in a loud or whispered voice, but always with a straight face:
The Green Bay Packers quarterback says it because it's a clichéd inspirational message -- especially coming from the leader of a team that barely made the playoffs, that will have to win three consecutive road games to make the Super Bowl, the final one against the host Chicago Bears on Sunday. But that's not what makes it funny.
What makes it funny is that he says it knowing he doesn't have to say it. "We're already loose," receiver Greg Jennings says.
Rodgers (left) and Cutler: One will get to celebrate his first Super Bowl trip after Sunday's game.
In fact, the NFC Championship Game will feature two loose teams that don't panic, teams that embarrassed their divisional-round opponents en route to a third meeting. (The Bears and Packers split their season series.) Both teams are cocky, led by their quarterbacks -- each of whom is new to NFL playoff success, each of whom displays his self-confidence in different ways.
Rodgers has a Tom Brady circa 2001 type of cockiness: It is forged by rejection. Rodgers didn't receive a single Division I scholarship out of high school in Chico, Calif. Even after eventually starring at Cal, he had to sit backstage at the 2005 NFL draft and watch 23 other players get picked before Green Bay snared him. Smart quarterback evaluators have tried to pick up on this stuff, knowing that the size of the chip on a passer's shoulder is often as big a predictor of success as arm strength or stats. But fact is, few quarterbacks possess the ability to flip supreme disappointment into unstoppable play.
Rodgers has done it. Who played more like a Pro Bowl quarterback Saturday night in the Georgia Dome: the guy who was selected for that honor (Matt Ryan) or the guy who hit 31 of 36 throws for 366 yards, scrambled and fired darts like John Elway, and led his team to a 48-21 win?
Rodgers was smiling the entire way in the Packers' rout of Ryan's Atlanta Falcons. It was so fun, in fact, that in the huddle he began to call plays that weren't in the game plan.
Late in the second quarter, receiver James Jones came to Rodgers and said, "I can get 'em deep."
Rodgers flipped Jones' alignment with Donald Driver's, positioning Jones alone to the right. Jones ran a stutter-and-go and made a twisting, falling catch in the end zone for a touchdown.
Only a few quarterbacks -- Brady, Peyton Manning -- are allowed to change the play whenever they want. Rodgers has only three postseason games -- including two wins in this trip -- under his belt. But if you're playing at a level that Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy characterized twice after the Falcons game as "excellent," not to mention "on fire," you're permitted a few allowances.
"When you're playing like him," Jennings says, "you can call whatever you want."
Cutler, meanwhile, has the cockiness that attends the naturally gifted. Football always has been easy for the former Vanderbilt star and Denver Broncos starter. Cutler always has used his arm to bail him out of whatever prickly situation his attitude -- surly to some -- placed him in.
But he complements his talent with hard work. He's a ferocious film studier, and although Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz's scheme is quarterback-friendly, Cutler has used it to shed the notion that he's a flamethrower who cannot win big games.
Cutler was smiling, too, during Chicago's 35-24 win Sunday over the Seattle Seahawks -- his postseason debut. Whether that translates into an image makeover remains to be seen. But with each win, his baggage seems to matter less, and fans are beginning to see him not as a grump but rather as the type of technician the Bears badly needed.
Along the way, he seems to be acquiring the mental toughness the best quarterbacks have.
"Nothing outside of that building -- Bears headquarters -- is going to affect me," Cutler said after beating the Seahawks.
"Everything starts with Jay Cutler," Chicago coach Lovie Smith says. "He was outstanding."
Two quarterbacks playing for a chance at the Super Bowl arriving from different angles. Two teams, both brash, ready to go.
As McCarthy put it after the win in Atlanta, "We're a championship-caliber football team. We have 16 quarters on our mind. We've completed eight and have an opportunity to play four more next week. We feel very good about who we are, the way we've played."
So do the Bears. Both of the NFC's remaining teams have reached that rare realm in sports where talent matches results.
For one more week, at least.
Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com.