Cutler's real fun comes with another win
Nerves in his playoff debut? Impossible to tell in Bears' X factor quarterback
CHICAGO -- Lovie Smith called his quarterback "undefeated in the playoffs for his career," which drew a few laughs considering that Jay Cutler is now 1-0.
At the same time, it can't be overstated how important Sunday's victory was for Cutler, who was doing double-duty intercepting passes at safety for Heritage Hills (Ind.) High the last time he played a postseason football game.
The operative word for Cutler after he led the Bears to a 35-24 victory Sunday over Seattle to vault them into the NFC Championship Game and a step away from the Super Bowl was "fun." But of course.
It was fun to play in the game, said the guy who spent the week trying not to explain why he's anything but. It was fun to play this season, he said. It will be fun preparing for next Sunday and even more fun to play the Packers.
But the real fun, obviously, only will come with success for Cutler and a victory for the Bears.
Like it or not, he remains the X factor, the proverbial jury still waiting for definitive proof that he is not just an elite talent but an elite quarterback; that he cannot merely lead his team against a great opponent but also with so much at stake; that he is a leader deserving of a Super Bowl berth.
Sunday was certainly a great precursor. If there were nerves involved in his first playoff game, they were impossible to detect as Cutler lofted a beautifully thrown pass to tight end Greg Olsen for a 58-yard touchdown on his first attempt of the day.
The last time an NFL quarterback threw for a touchdown on his first career postseason pass was nine years ago, when Chad Pennington did it for the Jets. With 4:12 left in the third quarter, the Cutler-led Bears offense had all but sealed the victory with a 28-0 lead.
And when it was over, Cutler accounted for four of the Bears' five touchdowns and became the second quarterback (Otto Graham was the first) in NFL history to run for two -- on 6- and 9-yard gains in the second and third quarters -- and throw for two, adding a 39-yard scoring pass to Kellen Davis in the fourth quarter.
Cutler completed 15 of 28 passes for 274 yards for a quarterback rating of 111.3. He also ran the ball eight times for 43 yards. He fumbled once, but the Bears recovered. And the Bears, who were 0-for-12 on third down the last time the two teams played, converted 10-of-18 this time. Not a bad day all the way around.
"I don't know if you're going to get any better performance out of a quarterback in the playoffs," Olsen said. "I don't know what he threw for, the yards -- who cares? Two throwing touchdowns, no turnovers, taking care of the ball, making those decisions, moving us up and down the field. I don't know what more he could've done from that position, in any game, let alone a huge playoff game. You can't give enough credit to what he did."
With Green Bay, the hype is definitely going to be there, with the rivalry and the magnitude of the game. We're going to have to do the same thing we did [this] week. We can't blow this out of proportion. It's still a football game.” -- Jay Cutler
Cutler cited the few plays he left on the field, missing Olsen on a third-and-12 with an opportunity to build on the lead just before halftime. He also referred to a missed third-and-9 on an incomplete pass to Johnny Knox in the fourth quarter with the Bears leading 28-10.
In retrospect, it hardly seemed that important. More egregious was when -- on second-and-1 from the Seattle 3-yard line in the first quarter -- instead of taking the sack or throwing the ball away, Cutler chucked it directly into the arms of cornerback Jordan Babineaux, who dropped not just a sure interception but potentially a touchdown with nothing but snow-capped turf in front of him.
The Bears scored on the drive to go up 14-0, but that was a huge early break.
Poor judgment also reared its head when Cutler took off downfield and slid head-first on a 21-yard scramble with the Bears leading 28-3 earlier in the fourth.
Just as questionable was why Cutler was still in the game. Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy pulled Aaron Rodgers in the fourth quarter of the Packers' 48-21 victory over Atlanta on Saturday.
Smith said it never crossed his mind until right at the end whether to take Cutler out. "We weren't in a position to do that," he said.
More important now is how Cutler will fare against the one team in the NFC that may be hotter offensively and defensively than the Bears.
"With Green Bay, the hype is definitely going to be there, with the rivalry and the magnitude of the game," Cutler said. "We're going to have to do the same thing we did [this] week. We can't blow this out of proportion. It's still a football game."
Except that this game is going to be against a team sure to play better than the moribund Seahawks, who brought the 28th-rated road defense into Soldier Field on Sunday and lost their eighth straight playoff road game.
As a Bear, Cutler is 1-3 against the Packers with nine interceptions and four touchdowns. In their most recent meeting, an inconsequential 10-3 loss two weeks ago in Green Bay, Cutler was 21-of-39 for 168 yards and two interceptions, and was sacked six times.
The Packers will come at him, as they always do, with their speedy secondary. Clay Matthews will be lurking like a schoolyard bully.
"They did a great job [two weeks ago] putting some pressure on us and taking us out of our rhythm offensively," Cutler said. "We have to go back and really take a look at that film and look at what they did to us because obviously they're going to do some of the same stuff.
"They do a great job scheme-wise. They're going to show you a lot of different looks, they're going to fool you. They're going to bring a lot of different things at the snap of the ball. They do a good job of disrupting."
And Cutler's reaction most likely will be the deciding factor.
"It'll be fun," said the guy you'd least associate with the word.
But of course.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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