Here we go! A full 15 months after we tried to christen the "JayRod" rivalry, we finally have a matchup worthy of hyping.
This is what we envisioned all along: Two smart, young quarterbacks with strong arms and favorable schemes leading their undefeated teams into a "Monday Night Football" showdown for sole possession of first in the NFC North. Jay Cutler and his Chicago Bears are one of the NFL's biggest surprises, while Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers have thus far satisfied expectations if not exceeded them.
Of course, we have a dramatic twist. After an offseason of massive hype for Rodgers, some of it here on this blog, Cutler has compiled the NFL's highest passer rating through two games and has appeared a natural in Mike Martz's aggressive offensive scheme. Rodgers, on the other hand, described his Week 1 performance at Philadelphia as "terrible." It was a slight exaggeration but nevertheless confirmation that he and the Packers have opened the season at less than full throttle.
Regardless, JayRod's teams are both 2-0 as the matchup approaches. If you subscribe to the theory that championships require elite quarterback play, you'll have no trouble deciding where to focus Monday night at Soldier Field (ESPN, 8:30 ET).
"It's big," Cutler said Monday on ESPN 1000's "The Waddle & Silvy Show." "The season is long, though. I don't think we want to put all of our eggs in this game. But it's a huge game."
Cutler and Rodgers spoke Sunday night, as they have routinely done since the Bears acquired Cutler last year. Cutler is 27. Rodgers turns 27 in December. If all goes as planned, they'll wage a decade-long battle for NFC North supremacy.
That vision seemed blurry, at best, for most of last season. While Rodgers earned the NFC's starting spot in the Pro Bowl, Cutler threw a league-leading 26 interceptions, including six in two losses to the Packers, and entered 2010 at a career crossroads.
Could he and Martz construct a cooperative dynamic to resurrect both of their reputations? Or would their personalities clash and take us through a spectacular conflagration?
A two-game sample size is too small to draw any grand conclusions, but it would be hard to foresee a better start. Cutler is not only completing nearly 69 percent of his passes, but he's averaging an NFL-high 10.14 yards per attempt. Essentially, that means Cutler has had elite-level accuracy while throwing plenty of low-percentage downfield passes. Already this season, the Bears have completed eight passes of 20 or more yards -- one more than the Packers and good for eighth best in the NFL.
Cutler has thrown a few passes up for grabs, and the worst -- into triple coverage Sept. 12 against the Detroit Lions -- was tipped by two different defenders. Tellingly, though, it's the only interception Cutler has thrown this season, and he credited his elevated decision-making to "a little bit of a lot of things."
"[Martz is] so conscious of giving me an answer for each and every coverage that goes with each play," Cutler said. "I'm not going out there thinking, 'If this happens, maybe I throw it here [or] maybe I've got to throw it here.' It's very clear-cut: 'Throw it here. If you get this, you've got to go here. If this happens, this is your hot [read].' He always gives me an answer. As long as I have an answer, most of the time I'm going to do the right thing."
When you take a step back, however, you realize that Cutler's turnaround goes back further than the start of this season. As you can see in the chart below, Cutler has thrown 13 touchdowns and two interceptions over his past four games dating to December 2009. If you want, you could argue that performances in meaningless games at the end of a 7-9 season have limited significance. They seem relevant to me, however, when you see Cutler pick up this season where he left off.
There's no doubt Cutler needed to harness his powerful arm with a more even-keeled mindset, a work in progress that has nevertheless manifested itself in ways beyond interception totals. To me, Cutler displayed more poise in the Week 2 27-20 victory over the Dallas Cowboys than I had ever seen from him in a Bears uniform.
Rather than capitulate to the Cowboys' initial frenzy, Cutler hung on. Instead of throwing wildly in the face of a blitz, he waited for Martz to make the necessary adjustments. (Most notably, Martz shortened Cutler's drops to let him release the ball quicker.)
"We knew [the Cowboys] were going to come out fired up," Cutler said. "... I just told those guys to hang in there. You just don't want a turnover there. You kind of want to play the field-position game. You just want to weather it a little bit. You just want to get through that first five, six, eight minutes and settle down a little bit. See what they're going to do, and make some changes."
Whoa. Was that really Cutler speaking? Or was it Rodgers, who has been nothing if not poised since the otherwise tumultuous moment he took over the job in 2008. That poise is why Rodgers clinically, but without a trace of concern, dissected his season following last Sunday's 34-7 victory over the Buffalo Bills.
In his first six quarters of the season, Rodgers completed 57.4 percent of his passes (27 of 47) for 298 yards. Those numbers won't get you kicked out of the league, but NFC North observers know they're pedestrian by Rodgers' standards. To that point, Rodgers had been uncharacteristically inaccurate, missing open targets on more than a few passes and throwing the same number of interceptions (two) it took him five games to accumulate last season.
After halftime against the Bills, however, Rodgers completed 11 of his final 13 passes and accounted for three touchdowns as the Packers pulled away.
"The second half was more the way I'm capable of playing," Rodgers said, "[with] the rhythm I felt like I should be playing with."
Which brought him up to speed just in time to fulfill another line on our NFC North wish list. "JayRod" finally means something. Six days to go.