CHICAGO — Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler are two young quarterbacks on the rise, blessed with slingshot arms and nimble feet. Both can handle postseason pressure, earning their first career playoff victories in recent weeks.
They’re friendly off the field, exchanging congratulatory text messages when their respective teams won last weekend to set up what might be the juiciest conference championship game ever.
And both men have a chance to cement a place among the NFL’s top quarterbacks when the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears revive their historic rivalry in Sunday’s NFC championship game at Soldier Field.
For fans, it’s a passionate fight for ultimate bragging rights. For players, the game will likely be decided by the two quarterbacks’ ability to make big plays and keep drives alive against two top defenses.
“Once you get to these games, it is a quarterback’s game,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “When they have open receivers, hitting them. Standing in the pocket, taking a couple hits if you have to, just being that leader that the team sees is out front making plays.”
But any similarity between Cutler and Rodgers ends when it comes to public perception.
Rodgers is the guy who gracefully scrambled out of Brett Favre’s shadow.
Cutler is Favre 2.0, minus much of the homespun country charm.
Rodgers remained poised and quietly confident after Favre was traded in 2008 — even after Rodgers was booed by some of his own fans. Since then, Rodgers has won over just about everyone with his stellar play and likable personality.
If anybody in Wisconsin is still pining for Favre in green and gold, they’re doing so very quietly.
“He’s playing his best football of his career at this point, and that’s what you want, especially this time of year,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said of Rodgers. “He’s definitely a big-time quarterback. He’s everything we hoped he’d be.”
Cutler remains a talented work in progress.
His throwing mechanics sometimes break down, and he relies on arm strength and a gambling mentality that sometimes leads to head-scratching interceptions.
“I think you’re always growing,” Cutler said. “You’re always trying to get better. You’re always learning new stuff. Obviously I had to learn a little bit quicker with the new offense and Mike (Martz). You’re always seeing different defenses and always critiquing yourself and if you’re not, you’re not going to get any better.”
But Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk says Cutler has a “huge” arm and seems to have his teammates behind him.
“I think they love having a guy like Jay Cutler, because he brings a lot of energy and big-play capability to the field,” Hawk said. “And I think he’s done a really good job all year of kind of capitalizing on the defense’s mistakes that are made against him and what he can do. He seems like he just has great command of the offense, great command of the game. That’s what you want out of a quarterback.”
Given Cutler’s risky tendencies, and his at-times aloof demeanor off the field, he hasn’t completely won over some Bears fans. That could change Sunday.
“I think everyone in the locker room knows the magnitude of this game, knows what we’re going up against,” Cutler said. “But at the same time we’re going to enjoy it, we’re going to be loose, we’re going to play our game and we can’t worry about what is going to happen afterward if we win, we lose. We just have to go out there and play.”
Rodgers said Sunday’s game “takes the rivalry to the next level,” creating the kind of atmosphere he’s dreamed about playing in since he was a kid.
“It’s great that there’s so much history, the longest-running rivalry in the National Football League,” Rodgers said. “To have one of us, the winner of this game, go to the Super Bowl is pretty special.”
Sure, the quarterbacks won’t determine Sunday’s game by themselves.
Sloppy field conditions at Soldier Field could disrupt the Packers’ wide receivers, hinder the quickness of Bears defensive end Julius Peppers — or both. Clay Matthews and the Packers’ blitz schemes could prove to be too much for a still-shaky Bears offensive line, or Chicago’s resurgent running game with Matt Forte could keep Green Bay’s defense off balance.
The Bears could capitalize on what appears to be a significant edge on special teams, beginning with returner Devin Hester.
But quarterbacks come first, even in a historic rivalry built on toughness, and Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said the Packers will be in for a long afternoon if they don’t get pass rush pressure.
“Hopefully, we can get to Cutler and make him make some quick decisions back there,” Williams said. “When you watch film, if you let the guy sit back there he can be a nightmare. If you get pressure on pretty much anybody you’ll make them make quick decisions and you can make plays.”
Rodgers, meanwhile, was fairly productive in two games against Chicago this year — the Bears won in Chicago in September, and the Packers beat the Bears in their regular-season finale to make the playoffs — but the Bears generally do a pretty good job containing the Packers’ offense.
Rodgers said he’s looking forward to facing the Bears, especially linebacker Brian Urlacher.
“I don’t know how he feels about me. He said he voted for me for the Pro Bowl — I don’t know if he’s lying or not,” Rodgers joked. “A lot of respect on this side for the way that he plays, the way he’s played this season. But (he’s) somebody I really enjoy playing against.”