The labels that will be applied to the NFC Championship Game between the Bears and Packers at Soldier Field will be plentiful. Epic. Legendary. Historic. Colossal. Prodigious. Herculean. People, including me, will also pile out the match-ups that will determine the outcome. Can the Bears block Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson on designed blitzes? Can the Bears establish the run with Matt Forte on the outside? How will the speed receivers of the Packers handle the turf? Will Mike McCarthy punt to Devin Hester? Was James Starks merely a flash in the pan against the Eagles’ mediocre run defense?
All of it, and I really mean all of it, is secondary. It is backstory. This past weekend, in Chicago and Atlanta, Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers wrote the preamble for this coming Sunday’s NFC Declaration of War. Cutler’s four touchdowns, two while doing his best Steve Young impression and taking bit hits on designed runs in the red zone, was the finest postseason performance ever by a Bears quarterback. Mr. Rodgers was Mr. Perfect, completing 86% of his passes, and shredding the Falcons defense like they were fielding The Red Rooster and Tito Santana at corner.
They are the story, Cutler and Rodgers. The story this weekend. And the story on Sundays in the NFC North division for the next decade. Yes, Cutler and Rodgers have squared off four times in their now native uniforms but they’ve yet to square off when both teams, both men, both quarterbacks had real stake in the contest. Rodgers opened his career against the Bears with a victorious 37-3 mauling but his prolific offenses have never scored more than twenty-one points against Lovie’s defenses since. Cutler is only 1-3 against Green Bay, winning only on September 27th, and struggling with a TD-INT ratio of 4-9. But Sunday at Soldier Field he’ll be able to erase the entirety of his regular season resume, just as the New York Jets erased the humiliation of their Monday night 45-3 loss to Big Billy Bells and the Patriots.
The Bears and the Packers are the two best defenses in the conference, with the Packers maybe slightly ahead due to the brilliant play of their corners – Woodson and Tramon Williams. The early weather prediction has the temperature topping out around 20 degrees with 10 MPH winds streaming off the lake. (It should be noted that the weather report last Monday mentioned no possibility of snow for the Seahawks game.) Couple that with the fact that all four of the meetings between Rodgers’ Packers and Cutler’s Bears have been decided by seven points or less and it’s not far-fetched to imagine it might only take one play, one big throw in the conditions, to book a ticket to Dallas and Super Bowl XLV. (Side note: If it were not for the Super Bowl, would anyone use Roman numerals for anything ever?)
They are the story, Cutler and Rodgers. The way quarterbacks always seem to be the story when the games leave the lounge and step onto the stage of the main room. One of these quarterbacks will hold the trophy named for Pope Chicago Bear I, George S. Halas, and find himself sixty minutes from holding the trophy named for King Packer, Vince Lombardi. These franchises are the novels of the National Football League. These quarterbacks are the current chapters. One, Rodgers, seems right out of Steinbeck – humble and heroic, having emerged triumphant from the shadow of the country’s most famous jeans salesman/penis photographer. The other, Cutler, seems almost out of a Tarantino picture – the prickly anti-hero with an assassin’s spirit and a vocalized disregard for authority.
One of their careers elevates to the next step at the final whistle around 5:00 PM CST. But only one. I know quarterbacks can’t win football games alone and I’m not arguing either of these men will. Not with these defenses. Not in these conditions. But it has been seventy years since these storied franchises have played a game with this type of heroic potential. And one of these men will be labeled a hero at Soldier Field.