Four quarterbacks at precipice of Super Bowl

Mark Sanchez has led the Jets to the AFC championship game in each of his first two seasons.
Mark Sanchez has led the Jets to the AFC championship game in each of his first two seasons.
Posted: January 23, 2011

Mark Sanchez looked as if he still belonged on a college campus. Days of scraggly facial hair had grown along his jawline, and he tucked his hands into a green hoodie, its retro-cool Jets logo carefully distressed.

Sanchez, 24, is young enough that he could still fit in at Southern California. But instead he's on the verge, for a second time, of reaching the NFL's biggest stage.

Joining him on the precipice of the Super Bowl are three other quarterbacks, all younger than 30, who have surged to success this postseason while the quarterbacking trinity of Brady, Brees, and Manning went winless.

For Sanchez, the Bears' Jay Cutler, and the Packers' Aaron Rodgers, both 27, Sunday's games represent a chance to make a mark among a new era of quarterbacks while the passing elite - Drew Brees, 32; Tom Brady, 33; and Peyton Manning, 34 - sit home.

Meanwhile, for the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, a 28-year-old with two Super Bowl rings, his latest postseason run gives him a chance to further build his case as the best of his generation.

All four - Sanchez, Roethlisberger, Rodgers, and Cutler - were first-round picks. All are complemented by great defenses. All have played their best this season when the stakes have been the highest.

"Once you get to these games, it is a quarterback's game," said Bears coach Lovie Smith. With four of the NFL's top six scoring defenses playing this weekend, the opportunities might be rare. But the four quarterbacks have advanced this far by making plays when needed. "When they have open receivers, hitting them, standing in the pocket, taking a couple of hits if you have to, just being that leader that the team sees out front making plays," Smith said.

That's been the story for both Sanchez and Roethlisberger, who, as rookies, each joined veteran teams with powerful running games and dominant defenses and contributed without having to be instant stars.

Roethlisberger, like Sanchez, went to the AFC title game each of his first two seasons, winning it all in his second year despite a subpar Super Bowl performance.

Now set for his fourth AFC title game, he reflected this week on what he has learned about the finality of mistakes at this stage of the year.

"Every week in the playoffs, it just picks up a little more. I don't think I realized that at first," he said. "There's no more 'My bads, I'll get it next time,' because there might not be one."

Roethlisberger had significant help when he won his first Super Bowl - he threw two interceptions and the Steelers still won. In the team's title run in 2008, though, he threw three postseason scores and led a championship-winning drive, cementing his reputation as a big-game player, despite the fact that the Steelers' blue-collar defense gets much of the team's credit.

"I know that I'm probably never going to win an MVP, probably never going to win a passing title. But that's not why I play the game. I just go out and try to win football games and try and win championships," Roethlisberger said.

In the most important quarterbacking statistic of them all, Roethlisberger stands out: He is 9-2 in the postseason and on a four-game winning streak.

Sanchez, too, has been buoyed by talent around him, but he has played well at the most critical times. After a shaky rookie season, he threw four touchdowns and two interceptions in last year's playoffs. Facing the Super Bowl-favorite Patriots last week in New England, he passed for three scores. His team has now beaten Brady and Manning in consecutive weeks, and Sanchez is a shining 4-1 in the playoffs.

"The bigger the stage, the more he wants to play and the more he looks into it as, you know, this is his time to shine," said Jets coach Rex Ryan.

Unlike Roethlisberger and Sanchez, the competitors in the NFC, Rodgers and Cutler, had to wait for their turns. Both won their first playoff games this month.

Rodgers, in his sixth NFL season, spent his first three as a backup to Brett Favre. In his first postseason start, last year, he quickly learned the lesson Roethlisberger talked about when it comes to mistakes. Rodgers put up 45 points, but he fumbled on an overtime sack. The Cardinals scooped up the ball and scored. Season over.

"I know it takes consistency for 60 minutes. Last year it didn't happen," Rodgers said before facing the Eagles earlier this month.

He's had that consistency this postseason, throwing for six touchdowns in two games and eluding pass rushers with his quickness. Against the Falcons last week, Rodgers looked like the best quarterback in the postseason as the Packers scored 48.

"He's definitely the quarterback we all hoped he would become," said Packers coach Mike McCarthy. "He's playing the best football of his career at this point, and that's what you want, especially at this time of year."

Cutler has often faced questions about being able to reach this point, but here he is, in an NFC championship game one year after leading the NFL with 26 interceptions.

He cut that number to 16 this season, and despite throwing six picks in his final four regular-season games, Cutler performed well in his first playoff game. The sixth-year quarterback threw two touchdowns and no interceptions as the Bears scored 35 points.

His coach knows that keeping the ball will be a key for Cutler, as well as for the other quarterbacks playing Sunday for a shot at the Super Bowl.

"Of the four quarterbacks left this weekend, they've all taken care of the ball. You have to do that," Smith said.

That's an age-old NFL maxim. This weekend, it will be crucial for a quartet of new-age quarterbacks.

All that's at stake is a chance at a championship.


Contact staff writer Jonathan Tamari at 215-854-5214 or jtamari@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JonathanTamari

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