NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl

Jay Cutler, Aaron Rodgers, and Alternate Reality
The stadium scene.
Jan. 24 2011 12:38 PM

NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl

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Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Ben Roethlisberger

I'm not sure how Jay Cutler can even show his pouty, tear-stained face after what he did to the Bears yesterday. Did you see Cutler out there on the first series, drifting lazily upfield while Greg Jennings beat him for huge gains on back-to-back plays? And then the very next play, Cutler had position to stuff James Starks, and Starks just blew through his tackle for a six-yard gain. Jay Cutler is shamefully soft, and he put the Bears in a hole they could never manage to climb out of.

What? Jay Cutler doesn't play defense? Oh. So that was some totally different set of guys in Bears uniforms who rolled over and let the Packers march 84 yards to start the game. And those guys, unlike Cutler, weren't out there trying to play with blown medial collateral ligaments in their knees? Well!

You talked about the random breaks of the game, Josh. I couldn't help wondering how things would have gone Sunday if Packers running back John Kuhn, leaping up to sell a fake goal-line handoff on the Green Bay's opening touchdown, hadn't kneed his own teammate, Pro Bowl left tackle Chad Clifton, in the head. The game stories say Aaron Rodgers was a bit out of sync yesterday—but overcame it through his un-Cutlerish gutsiness—but he looked flawless before his key lineman went down.

Clifton only missed three series while he was getting his "neck stinger" treated, but that was enough time for the Bears defense to establish a bit of a pass rush and for the Packers offense to sputter down from buzzsaw mode to being merely pretty good. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel decided to take a glass-half-empty approach to the counterfactual:

There's no telling what Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers would have done to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers if left tackle Chad Clifton hadn't overcome a neck injury Sunday.

Sure, but while we're rewriting the game, there's no telling what Clifton might have kept on doing to Peppers if he hadn't had an injury to overcome at all. It might have been 28-0 at halftime. (And maybe there in the alternate reality of Earth Two, Jay Cutler would have been stuck on the sideline watching the Packers carve up the Bears, so his knee would never have gotten hurt. And the Bears fans would have had to come up with some other reason it was all his fault.)

In last week's media focus on the Bears-Packers rivalry, at least one East Coast-biased skeptic noted that the rivalry lacks a certain vigor because the two franchises have rarely been good at the same time. I'm not convinced they're both good now, either. Cutler makes the ideal scapegoat for the Bears because—despite the scornful claims of Chicago fans that he's a disgrace to the uniform—he is inconsistent and unpersuasive in the same way the Bears themselves are.

Cutler plays through diabetes, almost never misses a game, has to be yanked from a playoff game by the coaches with his knee falling apart, and everyone thinks he's fragile and afraid of pain. The Bears rack up a bunch of wins, get home-field advantage for the conference championship, and still seem like they're waiting to be exposed, like the Kansas City Chiefs. They have the great uniforms of the tough Bears teams of yore—and it was super to see a smile from Lovie Smith on the Bears' final drive, on fourth-and-1, as his team prepared for a do-or-die power rushing play—but when your team's most intimidating player is a punt returner, it's hard to take it all too seriously.

The Steelers, on the other hand—well, that play you alluded to, Josh: third-and-6, inside the two-minute warning, Pittsburgh clinging to a 5-point lead. Roethlisberger rolled out to the right, scrambling for time, with two Jets chasing him, and at that moment, before he threw the ball, I knew the Steelers had won the game.

I'm old enough to have seen Randall Cunningham slip Bruce Smith's tackle in his own end zone and heave a 95-yard touchdown pass. I've seen John Elway make a quick, tiny feint that somehow causes a 280-pound pass rusher to miss a point-blank tackle. But I can't remember anything quite like Roethlisberger's schoolyard Superman routine—this sense that with the whole game on the line, the more the play breaks down, the more certain his success becomes.

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