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NFC title game big for both QBs, but bigger for Cutler

Updated: May 4, 2011 4:46AM

Leading his team to a lopsided win over the Seattle Seahawks in a divisional playoff game was not a defining moment in Jay Cutler’s as-yet-undefined career — no matter how many wrote or said otherwise.

Beating the worst playoff team in history at home is not how legends are forged.

All Cutler proved last week was that a mid-sized moment wasn’t too big for him. It’s going to take a stronger statement for people to quit viewing him as a more fleet-of-foot version of Rex Grossman. It’s going to take a win over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday at Soldier Field for Cutler to begin to earn the respect every quarterback craves.

Either Cutler or the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers is going to emerge from the game with a budding reputation as a big-time quarterback. They are friends; they are rivals. As long as both are playing for contending teams and bitter foes, any success one has will come at the expense of the other.

“We both can’t be in different conferences,” Cutler said. “If he’s very successful, I am probably not going to be quite as successful, and vice-versa. It’s a tough situation, and I wish him the best — except whenever we have to play them.”

Most people expect Rodgers to win the game; they expect Cutler to lose it.

Few believe in Cutler, and not that many believe in the Bears. We’re not just talking about media jackals, either, or a handful of fanatical radio talk-show callers. Cutler’s own peers rank among his biggest skeptics.

“Cutler, I think if he gets under pressure, he’ll just start slinging that sucker around like free loaves of bread in the ’hood, man,” Fox ­analyst and former New York ­Giants defensive end Michael ­Strahan said on Versus’ “The T.Ocho Show” on Tuesday. “I don’t think that he’s ­going to sit back there and just hold it and be cool with it.”

Before his words, however poorly chosen, were out of the future Hall of Famer’s mouth, Cincinnati Bengals receiver Terrell Owens chimed in.

“I feel like the guy’s color-blind,” Owens said of Cutler. “He’s just going to be tossing it and slinging it everywhere. At some point, he’s going to be the Jay Cutler that we all know that’s going to have those uncharacteristic games where he just throws the ball anywhere, and you’ll be like, ‘Who was he throwing the ball to and why was he throwing the ball down the field that way?’  ”

Strahan gets paid to make controversial statements, and such talk always has come naturally to Owens. What the two are expressing, however, is a widely held belief that it’s only a matter of time before Cutler makes a dumb throw that will cost his team. It’s a belief based on Cutler’s history of bad throws — including two that nearly were intercepted against the Seahawks — and is another example of the skepticism that still hovers over the Bears and their quarterback.

Even Bears coach Lovie Smith, when asked what he likes most about how his quarterback is ­playing, first talked not about what Cutler has done but what he hasn’t done — turn the ball over.

Not that any of this bothers Cutler, of course. When he says he doesn’t care what people think, he’s sincere.

Critics also can’t erase another Cutler character trait that helps and sometimes hurts him.

“Jay is very confident,” center Olin Kreutz said. “That’s going to help him in any game where there’s pressure.”

Expect to read a lot of ­comparisons of Cutler and ­Rodgers this week — but no matter how comparable they might be, there’s one difference that can’t be denied:

Cutler has a lot more to prove.

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