Two of America's largest cities await their fate this weekend. At the same time, both will have to wait one more week to potentially meet in the Super Bowl.
It's a price the Chicago Bears and New York Jets are willing to pay for a trip to the big dance. Both Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez are yet to reach the pinnacle that every player dreams of, and although Rex Ryan came excruciatingly close in 2009, this year's playoff run has been much more precise.
Speaking of precision, one missed opportunity could easily cost either side this week. Two fierce opponents await the Jets and Bears, with New York taking a trip to Heinz Field, whilst Chicago remains home to face the always challenging Green Bay Packers.
Perhaps if you are a fan of either team, a wave of uneasiness has swept over you in the past 24 hours.
Taking into account both Sanchez and Cutler's past, this Sunday is no sure-fire hit for success. 2010 has been a true reminder of how dangerous Cutler can be, but at the same time, Sanchez endured his usual mid-season woes that were solved thanks to wide receiver Santonio Holmes.
That same quick fix is no guarantee this weekend, though.
The Bears season has been as bright as it has been promising. Defensive end Julius Peppers has earned every cent of his six-year, $91.5 million contract notching eight sacks, and running back Matt Forte has developed into a sturdy NFC North runner equipped with typical pillar-to-post rush skills.
However, then there's quarterback Jay Cutler, who many people remain undecided on.
If we are to start from top to bottom, Cutler's season has been much improved in comparison to 2009, as the Bears' new-look quarterback threw for a career-high 26 interceptions in his first year under head coach Lovie Smith.
That wasn't the case the second time around.
Cutler's interception numbers plummeted rapidly in 2010, dropping down to a measly 16. Yet most importantly, Cutler has redeveloped his game plan immensely, now uncovering a rushing attack that was evident last week against the Seattle Seahawks, rushing for 43 yards and two touchdowns.
But of course, every party has its pooper, as the concern for Cutler remains in the sack department. After accumulating 52 sacks in the regular season, Cutler has already gone down three times during the playoffs, a telling statistic against a reasonably weak Seahawk defense.
Weakness doesn't await Cutler on Sunday, mind you.
Matching up against the Bears is the Green Bay Packers, a team that has been relentless in the sack department.
Inside linebacker Clay Mathews is expected to test Cutler at Soldier Field, but don't be surprised to see B.J. Raji and the upcoming Eric Walden also try their hand on the blitz.
For all of Cutler's fix-me-ups this season, people still aren't convinced as to which version of No. 6 will show up against Green Bay. Will it be the brilliant, the mediocre, or the ugly?
Mark Sanchez's familiarity with the Pittsburgh Steelers is both thick and thin this season. Week 15 saw the New York Jets storm the gates of Heinz Field and post a 22-17 victory, but as we all know, Mike Tomlin's team is a totally different wrecking ball in the playoffs.
When Sanchez first paid a visit to Pittsburgh five weeks ago, he posted 170 yards on the day. These are reasonably calm statistics against the Steelers stealthy defense, yet the emphasis head coach Rex Ryan placed on the run game doesn't exactly equal a positive.
Therefore, expect a much more involved Jets passing game with the AFC Championship on the line.
The motivation that Sanchez has over Jay Cutler, is the fact that the Jets have done this all before...and quite recently. New York sold out to the Indianapolis Colts last year away at Lucas Oil Stadium, but the rebirth of the Jets franchise was sure to see Ryan lead his team back almost immediately.
Keys to the Game
Sanchez must rely on wide receiver Santonio Holmes, but not heavily. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is a mastermind when it comes to shutting down playmakers, and although the Jets have many other targets to focus on, New York must avoid becoming too dependent on the Holmes front.
This is where tight end Dustin Keller comes in. To some, Keller seems to be more fitting of the blocking role against the Steelers, due to Pittsburgh's threatening linebacker corps, which consists of James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and James Farrior.
That isn't the case, though, as Keller's ability to play up the field helps the Jets out immensely. In Week 15, Keller was silent, gaining only 15 yards, but perhaps this is why New York struggled so much in the passing game when these two teams originally met.
Sanchez on the other hand, reaps the benefits of many receiving options. The Steelers defense was remarkably in tune last week creating a number of turnovers against the Baltimore Ravens, meaning Sanchez must release the ball quickly on Sunday.
The Jets were in this position a year ago and crumbled. It's time for Sanchez to show he is an independent quarterback.
The Jets and Bears are two of the hottest teams right now, but not solely due to quarterback play. Of course, it will take a team effort to pull off a victory over the favorite Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers this week, but nothing can be taken for granted in the postseason.
Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez?
Well, they mean the difference between winning and losing. Cutler led the way last week against Seattle, while Sanchez was graceful in eliminating the New England Patriots with a three-touchdown display.
Fans won't forgive either man quickly if hiccups are seen early. Now, the development of these two players will be put to the test.
Ryan Cook is an Australian author for Acme Packing Company, and a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. He is also a guest writer on PackerChatters, and a contributing writer to Detroit Lions Talk, Gack Sports and Sports Haze.
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