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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Feasting on Others’ Flaws, Bears Mask Their Own

Cowboys (5-9) at Cardinals (4-10)Saturday, 7:30 p.m.Line: Cowboys by 61/2

You can imagine what the schedule makers were thinking when they slapped a bow on this game and dropped it onto the Christmas prime-time television schedule back in the spring. ”What a gift for fans: the mighty, beloved Cowboys, who will no doubt be 11-3, facing the scrappy Cardinals, who will probably be around 8-6 and scoring 42 points per game. Surely Tony Romo will throw for four touchdowns, and we can cut away to luxury-box images of his lovely girlfriend, Candice Crawford, cheering him on in a fetching Santa hat. Heck, Kurt Warner will probably come out of retirement to save the Cardinals by October. All of America will watch!”

Crawford did receive an engagement ring from Romo this week, the only ring anyone involved with the Cowboys is likely to see for a while. Whenever the ”Romo love interest” angle overshadows the game, you know the Cowboys are in trouble (or, not coincidentally, that it is December), though at least they are bad in a watchable way. The Cardinals are stuck with rookie quarterback John Skelton, whom announcers sometimes compare to Ben Roethlisberger, because both quarterbacks are tall and there is almost nothing else to say about the Cardinals.

If this game becomes too tedious, sift through the obscure cable channels and check out the ”Renovation Realities” marathon on DIY, which may include an episode on renovating the entire N.F.C. West. Pick: Cowboys

Jets (10-4) at Bears (10-4)Sunday, 1 p.m.Line: Bears by 1

Mark Sanchez needed an M.R.I. on his sore shoulder this week. Sanchez’s status is questionable, but the way the Bears season has gone, it’s shocking that the M.R.I. machine did not crash through the floor, dragging Sanchez down three stories and right onto the head of Mark Brunell, who stopped by for a checkup.

The Bears have faced many quarterbacks of the caliber of Jimmy Clausen, Tyler Thigpen, Drew Stanton and Joe Webb this season; if a third stringer or converted wide receiver is making his first start of the year, chances are he is facing the Bears. Give the Bears credit for making the most of these opportunities, but they have truly benefited from facing inferior, injured, or unprepared opponents. The average Bears drive starts at the 34, giving them the best field position in the N.F.L. and making life easy for their sacks-and-bombs offense. Returners Devin Hester and Danieal Manning deserve some credit for the great field position, but lots of the three-and-outs by opponents’ waiver-wire quarterbacks also had something to do with it.

The Jets have had their share of fortunate bounces and unlikely victories as well, making this game a Karma Bowl: one team’s cosmic parking meter is about to expire. That team will be the Bears, who have gotten as far as Hester touchdowns, 30-yard field goal drives, and sudden snowstorms can take them. Pick: Jets

Giants (9-5) at Packers (8-6)Sunday, 4:15 p.m.Line: Packers by 3

Here is how this game unfolds:

With the Giants leading, 27-21, midway through the fourth quarter, the reserve tackle William Beatty fields a short kickoff and runs 60 yards in 23 seconds for a touchdown, holding the football like a French bicyclist balancing a baguette all the way to the end zone. After a Packers field goal, Tom Coughlin fails to notice that Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, Sterling Sharpe and James Lofton have suspiciously joined the Packers kick coverage team, and after retrieving an onside kick, the Packers drive for a touchdown.

The Giants get the ball back with 1:10 to play, yet somehow manage to engineer a drive that adds 10 seconds to the clock. The Packers drive to the 20-yard line, where Aaron Rodgers, taking a cue from the backup Matt Flynn, morphs into Hal Holbrook and starts reading from the ”Autobiography of Mark Twain” instead of calling a play. Time expires, the Giants win, and stunned reporters head for the interview room, only to discover that a confused Eli Manning delivered his postgame news conference on Saturday. Pick: Giants.

Chargers (8-6) at Bengals (3-11)Sunday, 4:05 p.m.Line: Chargers by 71/2

Jets’ Mark Sanchez Is Expected To Start Against Chicago

Sanchez partly tore cartilage in his right shoulder last Sunday at Pittsburgh, and on Thursday, Coach said Sanchez’s status “could” be decided at game time. Instead, Sanchez impressed Ryan enough during Friday’s practice that Ryan made his decision earlier.

“He was zipping it,” Ryan told reporters at the Jets’ facility in Florham Park, N.J. “He sent a message to all of us, mainly me, that he’s ready to go.”

Throughout his first two seasons, Sanchez has endured and played through a variety of injuries. He has missed only one game, last season at Tampa Bay. Sanchez is listed as probable on the injury report and Ryan placed his chances of playing at 90 percent, or “maybe a little over 90.”

Sanchez, in comments released by the team, said his shoulder felt better Friday than on the day before. He seemed certain that he would play. He added: “The treatment has been working. I felt better than the two days prior, and I’m going to be ready to play on Sunday.”

The Bears have already clinched the N.F.C. North division, but they will be playing for a first-round bye on Sunday at Soldier Field. The Jets will earn a playoff berth with a victory in either of their final two games or with one Jacksonville loss or one Indianapolis loss.