Four QBs left, and not a Brady or Manning in sight
Conference title games feature one proven winner and a trio of upstarts
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.
From top, Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler andMark Sanchez join twotime Super Bowl winner Ben Roethlisberger in the NFL’s final four.