More than three weeks have passed since the Chicago Bears clinched a playoff berth. I would be shocked if, at some point since then, you haven't shared in some version of this thought:
The defense played winning football in nearly every game this season. The special teams ranked among the league's best. Matt Forte was one of the NFL's most productive running backs over the final two months of the season. Only one man can trip up the Bears: Quarterback Jay Cutler.
That sentiment probably intensified this week when you learned the Bears would open their postseason against the Seattle Seahawks, who finished the regular season 7-9 and have won only one playoff game on the road in their history. Cutler sticks out as an obvious wild card, partly because he plays quarterback but also because of his polar performances during the course of this season.
On the whole, I think we can agree Cutler produced a much better second season with the Bears. He dropped his interception total from 26 to 16 while increasing his average yards per attempt from 6.6 to 7.6, a generally accepted measure of quarterback production.
But within that big picture, Cutler mixed some clunkers with some beauties. Consider:
In five games this season, he threw at least three touchdown passes.
In three other games, he took at least six sacks.
In another game, a Week 7 loss to the Washington Redskins, he threw four interceptions.
There is enough variety there to lend a "who-knows-what-you'll-get" quality to this game. And we haven't yet mentioned that Sunday will be Cutler's first postseason start of any kind since he was a senior at Heritage [Ind.] high school. You want to say that Cutler will react favorably, but who is to say for sure?
"I'm probably not the first quarterback that hasn't been to the playoffs in the first five years," Cutler said Wednesday, "and I probably won't be the last. We're in a good situation now. We've just got to take advantage of it."
In his weekly news conference at Halas Hall, Cutler fielded a number of questions about his personality, his relationship with the media and the public's perception of him. To me, those issues are relevant only to the extent that they can be used to project his performance on the field, and I'm dubious at best about the connection.
The bottom line is how Cutler will respond to what football people call "adversity downs." (And I wouldn't say that facing any group of reporters would provide an adequate gauge.) No matter how Sunday's game flows, there is bound to be a third-and-long at some point. A primary receiver will slip coming out of his break. A blitzer will at some point come free. (The Seahawks sacked him six times in their Week 5 victory at Soldier Field, blitzing at least one defensive back on a third of their dropbacks.)
Will Cutler avoid a game-changing play at those fulcrum points? The Bears have to hope so. They would love to have a three-touchdown game Sunday, but as bad as it sounds, the only thing they really need from Cutler is a (big) mistake-free game.