Adversity helped Bears' Cutler and Packers' Rodgers along the way
Pressure? You call this pressure?
Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler will feel a sense of urgency Sunday when the quarterbacks face off in the NFC title game, but it's child's play for these two on-the-field adversaries and off-the-field friends.
The only question is which 27-year-old has experienced the bigger pressure cooker?
Rodgers replaced Brett Favre in 2008, was booed by Packers fans in the team's family night scrimmage at Lambeau Field that year because he wasn't the Green Bay legend, and still has to answer Favre-related questions and endure comparisons.
Cutler was acquired by the Bears in April 2009 from Denver for first-round picks in 2009 and 2010, a third-round pick in 2009 and quarterback Kyle Orton. He then proceeded to throw an NFL-worst 26 interceptions during a 7-9 season.
But the adversity they have faced also has helped them get within one game of what will be the first Super Bowl appearance for one of them.
Obviously, Packers coach Mike McCarthy is hoping it's his guy.
"He's definitely the quarterback we all hoped he would become," McCarthy said of Rodgers. "He was a young, talented quarterback, had a very bright future, and now we're in year three of his development, and he's definitely developed into a special player. ... He's a big-time quarterback. He's everything we hoped he'd be."
Paths to success
Rodgers, outstanding in the Packers' playoff victories over Philadelphia and Atlanta, is now included in discussions about the NFL's elite signal callers.
He threw for three touchdowns and had a 122.5 passer rating in a 21-16 victory over the Eagles and was magnificent in a 48-21 victory at top-seeded Atlanta, hitting on 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards with three more TDs and a 136.8 rating. He also added a 7-yard touchdown run.
"The way I prepare, the time I put in, I expect to play well," Rodgers said. "That doesn't always happen obviously. Sometimes I make poor decisions, throw the ball not as well as I want to. ... But the last couple weeks I've played the kind of football I think you need to play to win in the playoffs."
Rodgers had to have doubts when he might get the chance as he watched Favre play in front of him for three seasons after he tumbled all the way to 24th in the 2005 draft. It was the Packers' overtime loss to the Giants in the NFC title game during the 2007 season that helped convince the Green Bay brass it was time to move on.
Favre's bitter parting turned out to be a wise one in Green Bay.
"I love him," Packers wide receiver Donald Driver said of Rodgers. "I don't know if you can put words to it, but he's playing like one of the best quarterbacks in the game, if not the best."
In his first NFL playoff game, Cutler completed 15 of 28 passes for 274 yards with two touchdowns in the Bears' 35-24 victory over Seattle last Sunday at Soldier Field. Most importantly, he threw no interceptions.
Cutler cut his interception total to 16 this season, five more than Rodgers, but a marked improvement from last season.
"If you look at all the quarterbacks out of the four left this weekend, they've all taken care of the ball," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "And quarterbacks now are normally the difference."
The Bears knew that when they paid such a steep price to get Cutler, and that's why they brought in former NFL coach Mike Martz as their offensive coordinator last offseason. Getting former Vikings coach Mike Tice as offensive line coach also appears to have helped a unit that remains suspect in pass protection but has done a solid job of run blocking in the second half of the season.
Martz's willingness to mix the pass with the run has removed some of the pressure off Cutler.
"Last year, we struggled in a lot of areas," Cutler said. "This year, we're kind of putting some stuff together, we've been lucky with injuries, I got Mike Martz over here, he's done a fabulous job for us. So a lot of things have come together to make it possible. ... You're always growing. You're always trying to get better."
A (mostly) friendly rivalry
Rodgers and Cutler come off as two very different personalities.
There was a bit of controversy last week when the popular website Pro Football Talk wrote an item that criticized Rodgers after he was shown walking past a female Packers fan who has cancer in the airport without acknowledging her request for an autograph. But it turned out the personable Rodgers had signed for her previously and even she defended him to the media.
Given a chance to lash back at PFT, Rodgers simply said, "I think the final judgment is (the writer) maybe jumped to conclusions a little bit too quickly."
Cutler, meanwhile, often comes off as surly at his news conferences and was criticized in a recent column by ESPN's Rick Reilly in which he wrote that if Cutler's "not the most hated man in the NFL, he's in the running."
If that's true, don't include Rodgers in the anti-Cutler group. Cutler and Rodgers got to know each other when Rodgers' younger brother, Jordan, was looking at attending Vanderbilt. Cutler had been a star at the school and befriended Jordan, who is now a quarterback for the Commodores.
"Jay played my role in helping him, kind of being like a big brother to him at Vanderbilt," Rodgers said. "So definitely as a big brother you thank Jay for that and appreciate his role in helping my little brother feel comfortable."
Understandably, Rodgers' friendship with Cutler has been put on hold. The two often exchange text messages, but that hasn't happened since Sunday.
"(The) cutoff was Sunday night," said Cutler, who was drafted in the first round by Denver in 2006. "He said, 'Good game, see you in Chicago.' I said, 'All right. See you in a week.' He's playing well. He's a good quarterback ... it is going to be a good challenge for our defense."
Cutler called it "almost a mini-Super Bowl."
He also refused to say this game will be about himself and Rodgers, but if it does come down to the two, there is little doubt many will side with Rodgers. Rodgers has guided the Packers to four consecutive victories, including two must-win games at the end of the regular season.
Hall of Fame quarterback and Fox announcer Troy Aikman praised Rodgers during a recent telecast, saying that if he was starting a team tomorrow, he would pick Rodgers as his quarterback. Even Favre recently acknowledged he felt Rodgers was the best quarterback left in the playoffs.
"Well, that's quite an honor, it really is," Rodgers said of Aikman's statement. "I have a lot of respect for Troy and what he did with his career. He's probably being a little bit too generous. I think to be mentioned in the same category as those guys, we have to put some more hardware around here. But I appreciate the kind words. Like I said, I want to win championships."
By late Sunday, either Rodgers or Cutler will be playing for one.