Four Downs: Cutler or Rivers?

Former AFC West rivals Jay Cutler and Phillip Rivers will meet again this coming Sunday. US Presswire

Jay Cutler and Philip Rivers developed a rivalry from their days playing against each other in the AFC West with Cutler leading the Broncos and Rivers the Chargers. They meet again Sunday, this time with Cutler leading the Bears, winners of four straight, taking on San Diego, losers of four in a row.

Rivers has struggled this season, leading the NFL with 15 interceptions while Cutler has been inconsistent. Which quarterback is better? Our Four Downs panel weighs in on that and more:

First Down

Fact or Fiction: Jay Cutler is better than Phillip Rivers.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. At this exact moment, Cutler is a better quarterback than Rivers. If the question centers around overall body of work, Phillips wins the argument based on three Pro Bowl berths (2006,09,10) and playoffs victories. But Rivers is having a rough 2011, already committing a league 19 turnovers (15 interceptions, four fumbles). Cutler, on the other hand, has done a much better job protecting the football, while commanding a respectable passing attack without the benefit of star caliber receivers. But I had to start one of the two in a game tomorrow, it would be Cutler, based on how events have unfolded up to this point of the regular season.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. Winning percentage isn’t a true barometer to judge quarterbacks, but Rivers has a .663 winning percentage as a starter, compared to Cutler at .519. But let’s look at the raw numbers. Despite playing in the NFL two years longer, Rivers has thrown 12 fewer interceptions than Cutler, in addition to compiling a 95 passer rating with 149 touchdowns, while completing 63.4 of his passes. Cutler, meanwhile, has completed 61.2 percent of his passes for a passer rating of 84.3 with 115 TDs and 85 INTs. In Cutler’s defense, Rivers has had more stability in terms of schemes and coaches. Cutler hasn’t been able to settle into any scheme the way Rivers has over his six seasons. In fact, considering all the tweaks the Bears have made, I’d say Cutler still hasn’t been able to settle into this scheme. So although I consider Rivers to be the better quarterback, he hasn’t experienced the same challenges as Cutler.

Melissa Isaacson Fact. A lot easier to say this recently as the two rivals are headed in different directions. Rivers, still the fifth-rated passer in the league, is having the worst year of his career with a career-high 15 interceptions and career-lows in touchdown passes (13) and quarterback rating (80.2). While Cutler (the 12th-rated passer) has exercised better judgment this season and is much-improved in getting rid of the ball sooner, Rivers, whose team has lost four games in a row, is doing the opposite and getting beat up with 25 sacks (third-highest among NFL quarterbacks).

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. If you’re going by career, Rivers still has the edge. He’s also been on better teams, so it's a little unfair. Rivers is having an awful season (15 interceptions) for Norv Turner’s kooky bunch, so he makes Cutler’s slightly-above average season seem that much more impressive. Cutler has only thrown six picks this year, but Rivers still has a higher completion percentage (61.4 to 58), despite throwing more passes (352 to 283). Honestly, I can’t say which of the two quarterbacks I’d rather have, but, all things remaining equal, I’d probably take Rivers.

Second Down

Fact or Fiction: This Bears team is better than last season’s team.

Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. If the Bears qualify for the NFC Championship Game, perhaps we can jump to that conclusion. There are numerous similarities between the two squads, but this year’s version of the Bears' offense remains a question mark after the line suffered yet another injury (Chris Williams) in the victory over Detroit. Barring an unexpected collapse by the Packers, the Bears will not win the NFC North and not have home field advantage in the postseason. So to call these Bears a better team after nine games, to me, is a stretch.

Michael C. Wright: Fact. In my mind, this starts with Cutler and the offensive line. Cutler hasn’t performed consistently, but one major difference I see is he’s playing with a resilience I haven’t seen from him the past couple of years. If the situation calls for putting the game on Cutler’s shoulders, I’ve got more confidence in him now than last season. He’s playing with a by-any-means-necessary style, which bodes well moving forward. Besides that, the offensive line is doing a better job -- not to mention putting forth a much stronger effort -- of protecting Cutler. Defensively, the Bears seem to be getting a little more production from the secondary, which was exposed way too many times last season.

Melissa Isaacson: Fact. The Bears are better statistically in every major offensive category this season, but defensively are still suffering from its slow start. They are now ranked 25th in total yards allowed per game (376.3) compared to a No. 4-ranked unit last year (301.9). The 2011 team was ranked 2nd in rush yards per game (82.3) compared to 13th this season (106.7), and 16th in pass yards (219.6) compared to 29th (269.7) this season. Still, the Bears have been outstanding defensively over the last four games, playing one of its best games in years against Detroit in takeaways (six) and defensive scores (two). As for special teams, though Hester was on a roll at this time last season, returning two kickoffs for a combined 100 yards against Minnesota in the Bears’ ninth game, he had “just” one punt return for a touchdown (in Week 3 against Green Bay) compared to two punts and one kick return for a touchdown this year.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. Though in reality, they’re very, very similar. The safety position, still unproven in my mind, is the only factor that makes me think otherwise. A lot of that has to do with the lessons learned last season, and the experience gained under the restructured coaching staff. Cutler is more comfortable in Martz’s offense, even if the results haven’t been mind-blowing, and the offensive line quickly got their act together after a slow start. Defensively, the Bears were victimized for some big plays, but that seems to have settled down. Last season we kept waiting for the floor to give out, but going into the 10th game, I think we know what kind of team this is, and what to expect.

Third Down

Fact or Fiction: Chris Williams is a big loss for the Bears.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact, just because the offensive line had finally seemed to settle on a permanent starting five up front. Although reserve Edwin Williams has experience, it’s unclear how he’ll hold up the rest of the year at left guard, or if he even will. If you had to lose one guy on the offensive line, Williams is probably the easiest to replace; since the Bears certainly can’t absorb another serious injury at tackle, or lose captain Roberto Garza, or versatile guard/center Chris Spencer. But as Mike Tice said last week, it’s all about continuity on the offensive line, which Williams’ wrist injury seriously effects.

Michael C. Wright: Fact. Williams was quietly putting together a solid season, and his loss means the team goes into Sunday’s game with its sixth combination of starters up front, after rolling with the same group for four consecutive games. So that will disrupt chemistry somewhat. Offensive line coach Mike Tice said that Williams was one of the most intelligent players he’d ever coached. So his consistency in knowing assignments and ability to help center Roberto Garza with the pre-snap line calls will be missed tremendously.

Melissa Isaacson: Fact. Earlier in the season, the answer might have been different. But since the offensive line has stabilized and improved its pass protection (with some help from the tight ends and running backs) with five sacks allowed the last four games after allowing 18 over the first five, any loss among the five starting linemen is big. And Williams, who has started 20 straight games at the same position, has done a solid job of late.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. I don’t think we’ll ever say he lived up to his draft slot, but Williams was turning into a pretty good interior lineman. He was the only guy to return to his same position on the line from last year to this year, and the best thing I can say about him is that I’ve rarely had to utter his name in a press box. The more the Bears have to dip into their reserve linemen, Edwin Williams is the new Williams at left guard, the worse off the team will be. Depth is key. Just as the line stopped being a regular cause for concern, this happens. I hope Cutler remembered to put me in his will.

Fourth Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears' offense is a cause for concern.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact. The Bears didn’t require the offense to win the Lions game -- the defense and special teams took care of that -- but that won’t happen every week. It’s not like the offense hasn’t shown up this year -- it operated at a high level against Atlanta, Carolina and Philadelphia. Still, another injury on the offensive line, plus the lack of any real consistent threat at wide receiver other than Earl Bennett, is concerning moving forward.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. It definitely appears that way after watching how the unit performed against the Detroit Lions. But Detroit’s defense is definitely no slouch, and you can’t diminish the fact the Bears spent the whole game playing with a big lead. In addition, it’s worth pointing out the team put points on the board (10 off the first two turnovers) when they needed to. But with the team playing with such a big lead, the offense wasn’t really under pressure to produce. Its job was to control the clock and not turn over the ball (the unit did lose one fumble). So as of right now, I’m not worried about the offense. I think the defense and special teams gave the unit a day off against Detroit. Let’s see how things unfold in the next few weeks. But I have a feeling this offense will respond when it needs to.

Melissa Isaacson: Fact. Compared to how the defense is playing right now, the offense can certainly be more dependable game to game, and Sunday against the Lions was disappointing. The offensive line could be a problem in the immediate wake of Williams’ absence and before Gabe Carimi settles in again. And while the offense is much better than it was last season at this time, it would be nice to see Jay Cutler, after nine games, have more confidence in receivers not named Earl Bennett. As for the run game, we’ll assume it will bounce back after a rare clunker on Sunday.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. Cutler has 11 touchdown passes through nine games, and he has one good wide receiver in the resurgent Bennett. Matt Forte has been nothing short of spectacular, but aside from him, the offense is devoid of star power and consistency. Sure, Cutler didn’t have to do much in games like Chicago’s 37-13 pasting of Detroit, and he did throw some really nice passes, but Mike Martz’s gameplan often lacks rhythm and isn’t causing any nightmares. Here’s the thing though: The Bears basically have five games to gain confidence, now that Bennett is back, until they face the Packers on Christmas. There’s still time to improve.