Four QBs left, and not a Brady or Man­ning in sight

Con­fer­ence ti­tle games fea­ture one proven win­ner and a trio of up­starts

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY MARK MASKE

The NFL play­offs have been syn­ony­mous in re­cent years with names such as Pey­ton Man­ning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. But with the ex­cep­tion of the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers’ Ben Roeth­lis­berger, who is pur­su­ing his third Su­per Bowl ti­tle, the quar­ter­backs play­ing in Sun­day’s AFC

and NFC ti­tle games sug­gest a chang­ing of the guard is un­der way. The New York Jets’ Mark Sanchez, Chicago Bears’ Jay Cut­ler and Green Bay Pack­ers’ Aaron

Rodgers sym­bol­ize a new gen­er­a­tion of young quar­ter­backs jostling to un­seat Man­ning, Brady and other es­tab­lished vet­er­ans as the sport’s tran­scen­dent passers and most cel­e­brated big-game win­ners.

“You don’t get here un­less you’re one of those guys or on the brink of be­ing one of those guys,” Bears Gen­eral­Man­ager Jerry An­gelo said.

TheNFLis in the most pass­ingfriendly era in its his­tory, thanks to the com­bi­na­tion of a group of tal­ented quar­ter­backs and ofqbs

and of­fense-as­sist­ing rule changes in re­cent years. This was the high­est-scor­ing NFL reg­u­lar sea­son in 45 years, with an av­er­age of 44.07 to­tal points scored per game. The av­er­age of 443.1 pass­ing yards per game was the most in league his­tory, and the 751 touch­down passes league-wide were a record. A record 22 quar­ter­backs reached 3,000 pass­ing yards.

The sport al­ways has been about the quar­ter­backs. But that is more pro­nounced than ever.

“I look at the last two Su­per Bowls,” An­gelo said. “It was about the quar­ter­backs and your abil­ity to rush the quar­ter­back. Roeth­lis­berger against [for­mer Ari­zona Car­di­nals quar­ter­back Kurt] Warner, that’s what that was about. And then last year with Man­ning and Brees, those two of­fenses were go­ing up and down the field.

“ That old say­ing that de­fense wins games? No. I look at it now that de­fense keeps you in games but of­fenses win it. You have to score points. You very well might be see­ing a pre­view this week­end of things to come at that po­si­tion.”

A chal­lenger in New York

All four of the cham­pi­onshipgame quar­ter­backs are for­mer first-round draft picks, so none is an out-of-nowhere story. But there has been some tur­bu­lence in the ca­reer of each of them, even though none has reached age 30.

Roeth­lis­berger, at 28, is the old­est of the group and the most ac­com­plished. He has won two Su­per Bowls, one fewer than Brady but one more thanMan­ning or Brees.

The sea­son be­gan with Roeth­lis­berger serv­ing a four-game sus­pen­sion for vi­o­lat­ing the league’s per­sonal con­duct pol­icy. Since re­ceiv­ing the pun­ish­ment, Roeth­lis­berger has worked to re­build his pub­lic im­age and was given the Pitts­burgh me­dia’s an­nual “Chief Award” for his co­op­er­a­tion with re­porters.

“I know that I’m prob­a­bly not ever go­ing to win a league MVP, prob­a­bly never go­ing to win a pass­ing ti­tle,” Roeth­lis­berger said. “But that’s not why I play the game. I just go out and try and win foot­ball games and try and win cham­pi­onships.”

Beat­ing Roeth­lis­berger in the AFC cham­pi­onship game in Pitts­burgh would give Sanchez and the Jets road tri­umphs over Su­per Bowl-win­ning quar­ter­backs on three straight week­ends. They won at In­di­anapo­lis again­stMan­ning and the Colts in their play­off opener and beat Brady and the Pa­tri­ots in New Eng­land last week­end.

Sanchez, 24, is com­plet­ing his sec­ond NFL sea­son. While he showed great im­prove­ment this sea­son — go­ing from 12 touch­down passes and 20 in­ter­cep­tions as a rookie to 17 touch­downs and 13 in­ter­cep­tions in his sec­ond year— he has yet to es­tab­lish him­self as a top-tier quar­ter­back. He was the league’s 27th-rated passer dur­ing the reg­u­lar sea­son.

But he has es­tab­lished him­self as a top-tier win­ner. The Jets are in the AFC ti­tle game for the sec­ond time in two sea­sons with Rex Ryan as their coach and Sanchez as their quar­ter­back.

“A lot of times, a guy can think he’s a good com­peti­tor but when you get on the biggest stage, not so much,” Ryan said. “Mark’s just the op­po­site. He’s such a huge com­peti­tor but the big­ger the stage, the more he wants to play and the more he looks into it as this is his time to shine. That’s just the way­Mark is.”

The Jets credit Sanchez for mak­ing some of his best throws when it truly mat­tered the past two week­ends.

“ That kind of stuff is maybe some­thing you’ll tell your grand­kids about: ‘We were play­ing against a great quar­ter­back,’ ” Sanchez said. “For now, these wins are for us. It’s for the Jets — Rex and me and ev­ery­body on the team.”

Ris­ing in Green Bay

The quar­ter­back matchup in the NFC game in Chicago is just as in­trigu­ing, given the friend­ship be­tween Cut­ler and Rodgers. Rodgers’s younger brother Jor­dan is a quar­ter­back at Van­der­bilt, Cut­ler’s alma mater, and re­ceived ad­vice from Cut­ler.

“As a big brother, you thank Jay for that and ap­pre­ci­ate his role in help­ing my lit­tle brother feel com­fort­able out there,” Rodgers said.

Cut­ler and Rodgers, who are in reg­u­lar con­tact, ex­changed text mes­sages af­ter their play­off wins last week­end, but put a mora­to­rium on fur­ther com­mu­ni­ca­tion dur­ing the week.

The “cut-off was Sun­day night,” Cut­ler said. “He said, ‘Good game. See you in Chicago.’ I said, ‘All right. See you in a week.’ ”

Rodgers, 27, is in his sixth sea­son with the Pack­ers but only his third sea­son as their starter. There has been a soap opera qual­ity to his NFL ca­reer, be­gin­ning with his ag­o­niz­ing plum­met to the 24th over­all se­lec­tion in the 2005 draft af­ter the San Fran­cisco 49ers opted to go with fel­low quar­ter­back Alex Smith with the top choice.

Rodgers sat for three sea­sons be­hind Brett Favre be­fore be­ing thrust into the start­ing job when Favre re­tired af­ter the 2007 sea­son.

Favre then changed his mind, but was traded to the Jets in the sum­mer of 2008 as Coach Mike McCarthy, Gen­eral Man­ager Ted Thomp­son and Pres­i­dent Mark Mur­phy opted to stick with Rodgers. The team’s brain trust has been richly re­warded for that de­ci­sion.

“I think we knew he’d be good. But he’s def­i­nitely ex­ceeded our ex­pec­ta­tions,” Mur­phy said last week.

Rodgers has been one of the NFL’s most pro­duc­tive quar­ter­backs the last three sea­sons, to­tal­ing 86 touch­down passes and 12,394 pass­ing yards.

He was the league’s third-rated passer this sea­son, be­hind Brady and San Diego’s Philip Rivers, but calls such talk about his sup­pos­edly lofty place in the game’s quar­ter­back hi­er­ar­chy pre­ma­ture.

“I want to win cham­pi­onships, and I think you start com­par­ing your­self to dif­fer­ent guys maybe when your ca­reer is wind­ing down or it’s over,” he said.

Rogers has been sharp dur­ing the play­offs, with six touch­down passes and no in­ter­cep­tions in road tri­umphs at Philadel­phia and At­lanta. He was nearly flaw­less last week­end with a 31-for36, 366-yard pass­ing show against the Fal­cons.

“You’re not go­ing to trick him,” Bears linebacker Brian Ur­lacher said. “He knows where to go with the foot­ball right when the ball’s snapped. He doesn’t make bad throws.”

‘ The right quar­ter­back’

Cut­ler does make some bad throws, as the 42 in­ter­cep­tions that he has thrown in his two sea­sons with the Bears prove. He also has been sacked 87 times in those two sea­sons. But he makes plenty of good throws as well, pass­ing for 50 touch­downs and 6,940 yards the last two years.

“Quar­ter­backs now are nor­mally the dif­fer­ence,” Bears Coach Lovie Smith said. “You have some guys that blend in ... and then you have the quar­ter­backs that need to make plays. . . . Jay is ca­pa­ble. He’s a play­maker.”

Cut­ler, 27, said he ap­pre­ci­ates what Sun­day’s game means but won’t be over­whelmed by the cir­cum­stances.

“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.”

An­gelo said he has no re­grets about trad­ing quar­ter­back Kyle Or­ton, two first-round draft choices and a third-round pick to the Den­ver Bron­cos for Cut­ler and a fifth-round se­lec­tion in April 2009. Af­ter three sea­sons with the Bron­cos, Cut­ler had clashed with the team’s new coach at the time, Josh McDaniels.

“We couldn’t have got­ten here with­out him,” An­gelo said. “ There are a lot of great quar­ter­backs in the league, and I’m not putting him up in that fran­chise cat­e­gory yet. He has to earn his way into that, and that’s not my call to say that any­way. But what he’s done for us — the tal­ent speaks for it­self but also the tough­ness, the work ethic, the lead­ing.”

“He’s the right quar­ter­back for us. In this city, it’s a tough po­si­tion to play. You have to deal with a lot of scru­tiny. The fish bowl is large here. He’s han­dled it very well. The ar­row is still go­ing up for him.”

The same prob­a­bly could be said of the other quar­ter­backs play­ing this week­end. Their per­for­mances Sun­day will go a long way to­ward de­cid­ing which two teams will meet in the Su­per Bowl in Dal­las in two weeks.

“Once you get to these games, it is a quar­ter­back’s game,” 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.”

A two-time Su­per Bowl win­ner, Pitts­burgh’s Ben Roeth­lis­berger, left, and three chal­lengers ea­ger to take their teams to the top: New York’sMark Sanchez, Chicago’s Jay Cut­ler and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers.

PHO­TOS BY GETTY IM­AGES

From top, Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cut­ler andMark Sanchez join twotime Su­per Bowl win­ner Ben Roeth­lis­berger in the NFL’s fi­nal four.

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