Jay Cutler's performance Sunday against the Green Bay Packers can influence whether the Bears win the NFC North or are eliminated from postseason contention. It can swing the pendulum in the NFL's oldest rivalry. It may play a role in whether Cutler will continue his career in Chicago. And it could help decide how much his next contract will be worth.
So if this is not the biggest game of Cutler's life, it is in the top two.
Cutler also played against the Packers at Soldier Field in January of 2010, that time with the right to go to the Super Bowl on the line. He completed six of 14 passes for 80 yards with an interception before a knee injury put him on the sidelines for most of the second half.
That game was representative of how Cutler has performed against the Bears' archrival. In nine tries against the Packers, Cutler has come away with a win once. His passer rating against them is 59.9. He has thrown 17 passes to Packers defenders—six more than he has to defenders on any other team.
Until Cutler and the Bears can get past Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, they won't be good enough, because no other opponent matters more to the Bears.
In many ways, though, the Cutler of 2013 is different from the Cutler of previous years. By all accounts, he has blended in well with a new coaching staff and a new system. He has found ways to take advantage of new weapons. And he has helped his blockers by getting rid of the football more expeditiously.
Cutler's ability and growth were so impressive to Bears head coach Marc Trestman that he went back to Cutler as his starter even though Josh McCown had statistically outperformed Cutler during a four-game stretch Cutler missed because of an ankle sprain. The decision continues to be debated.
"Any decision like this is going to be open to multiple opinions based on what Josh did on the time he was in there, and that's not a bad thing," Trestman told Bleacher Report. "Jay has been a part of a lot of wins. There was nothing he did prior to getting hurt that diminished my opinion of his ability to get things done for us."
Given that Cutler is working in a new system, Trestman has expected there would be some growing pains. But he also expected there would be some growing—and there has been.
"The baseline of where we started was very, very good from a quarterback-coach relationship," Trestman said. "He was always very good at communicating. He had a hard work ethic, and he was on top of everything offensively. If there were questions to ask, he'd ask them. And he was a good listener. The first time I sat and talked with him, there was a connection in terms of two guys who really like football and understood the importance of the quarterback-coach relationship. He was willing to be open-minded about it from the start, and he gave me a chance to show I would be consistent in the way I do things. I gave him a chance to base our relationship on everything that happened starting the day I got the job. It's grown on a personal level and on a football level."
Trestman flatly states there have not been many negatives with Cutler. He allows that they continue to work on fundamentals, as every quarterback should, and on finding out how to best utilize him within the system. He also said he wants more consistency from Cutler.
One thing McCown clearly did better than Cutler was protect the football. McCown's interception percentage of 0.4 is best in the NFL this season. Cutler's interception percentage of 3.3 is 27th best. He has turned the ball over 14 times.
Trestman acknowledges Cutler needs to do a better job of taking care of the football. But he also said this of his interceptions: "When you break them down, it's not just about Jay. It's about guys being in the right place, doing the right thing. They ultimately are counted against the quarterback. But I think it can be overvalued."
If Cutler made fewer bold throws, he would have been intercepted less frequently. But he also would have made fewer spectacular, game-changing completions. His confidence in his arm—as well as in his favorite receiver Brandon Marshall—can be both the reason he excels and the reason he fails.
Cutler has shown he can make mistakes and then overcome them. Two weeks ago against the Browns, he threw two interceptions in his first four possessions. But then he led three touchdown drives in the fourth quarter in a 38-31 victory.
"He had the toughness to come back and move forward and give his chance to win," Trestman said. "That was pretty significant. He's done a good job with adversity this year. I think you saw that early in the season. That's a little forgotten in this long season, but we wouldn't have won some of those games without Jay making the plays at those times."
Whether or not Cutler continues to make plays for the Bears after his contract expires in March remains to be seen. It probably is overstating things to say this is a make-or-break game for his future in Chicago. Trestman and Bears general manager Phil Emery have an extensive body of work from which to judge Cutler. And it's clear they like what they have seen of him up until now.
"He has the skill set," Trestman said. "I think he has the intangibles as well."
A television series does not win an Emmy based on one episode. Nor does it get cancelled. But that one episode could be the one that shapes its future.
So there is little doubt Cutler is about to play in a game that could define a season, and maybe even a career.
• No one is talking about the Browns making a head-coaching change, but if they do it won't surprise some people around the league. The reason is not that Rob Chudzinski has done a poor job, though. It's that the Browns didn't get who they wanted a year ago. The new Browns management team went after Chip Kelly, Jon Gruden and Nick Saban last offseason and might be inclined to make another pitch for a big name. The management team thought the Browns could be a .500 team this season after going 5-11 in 2012. If the Browns lose in Pittsburgh on Sunday, they'll finish 4-12. Another interesting point: Money is not an issue to team owner Jimmy Haslam, so having to pay off the last three years of Chudzinski's contract probably would not deter him from making a move.
• One surprise head-coaching candidate who sources say is being considered seriously by NFL teams is Vanderbilt coach James Franklin. He took a team without a strong football tradition and made it competitive in the toughest conference in college football, and has elevated the talent in his program quickly. Franklin has a lot going for him. He has an offensive background. He's bright. And he is a natural leader with the ability to sell.
• The Raiders likely will hire a new head coach in 2014, but it won't be their old head coach Jon Gruden. It is unlikely Gruden will return for any job this year, and it is especially unlikely he will return to the Raiders.
• Chances are good Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt will get a head-coaching job this offseason. And that's not the end of the world in San Diego. Why? Quarterbacks coach Frank Reich is in line for the promotion to offensive coordinator and is more than capable. In fact, Reich was a big contributor to the Chargers' playbook, and some believe the San Diego offense is as much a reflection of Reich as it is of Whisenhunt.
• Teams looking for a veteran running back who could come discounted are eyeballing Maurice Jones-Drew. The free agent to be is likely to take a pay cut, given that he will be 29 in the offseason and is averaging 3.5 yards per carry this season. The word out of Jacksonville is he got heavy this season and wasn't in the best shape, which won't help him. The Jaguars still could retain Jones-Drew. But it won't be at a premium price.
Assistant coach you should know: Dave Toub
Andy Reid is a deserving candidate for NFL Coach of the Year. But he might not be a candidate if Dave Toub wasn't a candidate for assistant coach of the year.
Last year, the Chiefs finished 23rd in the NFL in Rick Gosselin's annual special teams rankings in The Dallas Morning News. This year, with Toub running the special teams, they are on track to finish third. There is no question Toub had a positive impact on the Chiefs special teams.
Last Sunday, Dexter McCluster's 25-yard punt return set up the Chiefs' only touchdown against the Colts, and it also established a team record for punt-return yards in a season. And the Chiefs have had some pretty good return men over the years.
McCluster wasn't used much on returns last year, and he never has been used as the primary punt returner. But Toub quickly identified him as a potential standout on punt returns and lobbied Reid to give him the job. Reid didn't hesitate.
"He's been our special teams MVP—fielding punts, not letting the ball hit the ground," Toub said of McCluster. "He has shown a lot of courage. He goes for the short ones, and he's not worried about his return yardage. He also is a dynamic guy."
McCluster has had the same kind of success as a returner that Devin Hester did under Toub's guidance. How do they compare? "Dexter is a smaller guy than Devin," Toub said. "Devin can run through tackles, or make you miss. He has it all. Dexter is more elusive but he probably doesn't have the top-end speed. He has a lot of courage though. He'll field every punt, and he trusts the blockers."
The Chiefs don't have any special teams blockers or cover men who were considered Pro Bowl caliber previously. Husain Abdullah has emerged as a special teams force under Toub, though. "We have a bunch of guys who try hard and work," Toub said.
Punter Dustin Colquitt and kicker Ryan Succop also are having outstanding seasons. Toub credits his assistant special teams coach Kevin O'Dea for their success, as O'Dea is a kicking specialist.
It can be difficult for special teams coaches to get traction as head-coaching candidates, but Toub could be an outlier. He was the assistant in Philadelphia to another special teams coach who went far, as he once worked under John Harbaugh. Toub has been interviewed twice for head-coaching positions—two years ago by the Dolphins and last year by the Bears.
Given his history, any team that is doing its homework has to at least consider him.
• The NFL is considering variable ticket pricing (via MMQB), in which the cost of the ticket would be determined by the quality of the game. So I'm assuming it would work like this: To get me to go to the Redskins-Giants game this weekend, the league would pay me $500. Wait a minute, that's not enough.
• In response to criticism from the agent of Terrelle Pryor, coach Dennis Allen proclaimed (via Vic Taur of the San Francisco Chronicle) that the Raiders' drama is not like the television show Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. He did not address comparisons to Sons of Anarchy.
• Rex Ryan said (via Seth Walder of the New York Daily News) his quest to remain coach of the Jets is not like the reality show Survivor. However, there is little doubt he would be willing to eat grubs and pig intestines to not be sent home.
• Jon Kitna is like a lot of players who come into the NFL in that he has committed his paycheck before he's seen it. The difference is he didn't spend his check on cars, jewelry and shots of Louie XIII.
• In these times, the NFL's not-for-profit status is becoming as difficult to defend as Peyton Manning.
• I'm not going to miss Candlestick Park anywhere near as much as the rats, roaches and future prisoners who have so many fond memories of the place. Goodbye and good riddance.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.