Questioning Jay Cutler’s Toughness

Cutler proved it is possible to lose more in the conference championship game than just the dream of playing in a Super Bowl. He . Yes, most of America will quickly train its focus on the winners of Sunday’s games and marvel at the star power of a Packers-Steelers Super Bowl, a matchup made in N.F.L. Films heaven. Chicago will take a long time to shake the image of Cutler looking not the least bit hurt, and , that was all that mattered. Plenty of people rushed to Cutler’s defense, , and the and the offered matching critiques of those questioning Cutler’s toughness. But the battle may have been lost in the time television cameras kept showing Cutler on the sideline while his opposite number, the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, was soldiering on after nearly being knocked stupid by Julius Peppers. (notably, a Chicago native) quickly lumped Cutler into a pile of failed Bears quarterbacks.

The only one who came out of that mess looking good in a Bears uniform was the third-string near-hero Caleb Hanie, of being heartily congratulated despite throwing two rally-killing interceptions. And it did reflect a little glory back on Green Bay’s defense, as , which hinged on the , whose one zone blitz created the pivotal interception by B. J. Raji. That helped persuade to pin the Packers’ success not on destiny or whim but on toughness and resilience.

The tradition-lovers’ dream Super Bowl was complete with the Steelers not only , but rendering the talk-happy Jets nearly speechless. On the Jets’ side, there was plenty to blame for the flameout. that the Jets’ hopes died in failing to score from the 1 in the fourth quarter, a fiasco that terrible play-calling by Brian Schottenheimer. Complicating matters was the in quarterback Mark Sanchez’s helmet at that moment. But the result was sealed by Rex Ryan’s beloved defense being steamrolled for the entire first half.

The Steelers got their share of praise for doing the steamrolling, with that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger proved he could handle all manner of pressure. preferred to highlight the job Coach Mike Tomlin has quietly done with this team. pivots ahead to the Super Bowl matchup and warns that the Steelers defense will be facing a much better quarterback in its next game.

That next game is being hailed as a classic, with calling it the coolest matchup possible. highlights the history behind the Steelers and the Packers, and writes that despite the parity in the N.F.L. parity, there is something satisfying about two of the league heavyweights making it this far.

Soon, all that will overshadow the personal plummet of Jay Cutler. But not yet. And maybe never in Chicago.

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Fox’s Aikman Gave Bears’ Cutler Benefit of the Doubt

Fox’s did not question Cutler’s toughness, as , or the extent of his injury, which the Bears said on Monday was a sprained medial collateral ligament.

“When I left the booth,” Aikman said by phone Monday, “I was talking to one of the guys and said, ‘As soon as you say he could have come back and played, you’ll read in the paper the next day that it’s a blown-out knee.’ ” He added, “If a player’s not playing, I assume that the guy can’t play.”

Aikman recalled a game when a Dallas teammate, center Mark Stepnoski, hurt a knee but told no one, then stayed in for six more plays. “He said, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong,’ but it turned out from an M.R.I. that he’d blown his A.C.L.,” Aikman said. “He thought it was a sprain.”

Cutler’s team rushed to his defense Monday. Coach Lovie Smith told The Associated Press that Cutler, who was sacked a league-leading 52 times this season, “showed a lot of toughness to continue to play with it.” Smith emphasized it was the team that decided to bench Cutler.

The third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie said, “I’ll just tell you this, the one thing I know about Jay Cutler is he’s tough.”

To Aikman, the vitriolic reaction to Cutler was about the attitude he has shown since he arrived in the league. Aikman said, “I think it speaks to how polarizing he has become.”

And the severity of Cutler’s injury might have inadvertently been played down by the Bears when they termed his return “questionable” and by Fox’s being unable to find the play on which he was injured.

“To say he was ‘questionable’ implies the injury wasn’t too bad,” Aikman said.

CROMARTIE SOUNDS OFF Using the same salty language as he had two weeks earlier to describe New England quarterback , cornerback Antonio Cromartie lashed out at the players union and the league for the lack of progress on a new collective bargaining agreement. “You don’t get no information about nothing from the union or the owners,” he said. Cromartie said the two sides had to come together and stop complaining about money, adding, “Money ain’t nothing.”

Cromartie, who completed his first year with the Jets and is to become a free agent, said he was angry because a potential lockout would prevent him from pursuing his livelihood. Cromartie said he did not care if union and league negotiators got mad at him.

“This is what we do for our careers,” he said. “And you are dealing with hundreds of thousands of other people that are in this workplace as well.” DAVE CALDWELL

BRADY LEADS ALL-PRO TEAM quarterback Tom Brady is the leading vote-getter for The Associated Press 2010 All-Pro Team. Brady, one of three New England players on the team, was a unanimous choice by the panel of 50 members of the news media. defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was the only rookie to be chosen. (AP)

SAY NO TO PALMER The Bengals made it clear they want to keep quarterback , 31, who recently asked for a trade. According to The Cincinnati Enquirer and the team’s Web site, the owner Mike Brown said, “He was told that, and that we count on him going forward.” Palmer, the first overall pick in 2003, led the Bengals to the playoffs in 2005 and 2009 — Cincinnati’s only winning seasons in the last 20 years. (AP)

AGUILERA TO SING ANTHEM It was announced that , a five-time Grammy winner, will sing the national anthem at the . It will be her second performance at a Super Bowl; she was part of the halftime show in 2000. (AP)

NEW HIGHS FOR TV RATINGS In a demonstration of the ’s drawing power, the conference championship games Sunday were seen by an average of nearly 107 million viewers, including 54.9 million for Pittsburgh’s 24-19 victory over the Jets, the most for an A.F.C. title game.

The last time the A.F.C. championship game exceeded 50 million viewers was in 1982, when Cincinnati defeated San Diego, 27-7, in the so-called Freezer Bowl at Riverfront Stadium. The game’s viewership peaked at 57.5 million between 7:30 and 8 p.m. Eastern.

’s win over Chicago attracted 51.9 million viewers, the most for an N.F.C. title game played in the early Sunday time slot, but below the 57.9 million for last year’s New Orleans-Minnesota game, which was primarily in prime time.

RICHARD SANDOMIR