I'm generally the epitome of a casual football fan...with a murderous streak hidden in the closet.
I'm passionate about football, and relish the opportunity to watch any game that I can.
I started watching football in 1996, when the young Carolina Panthers (my hometown team) were marching to an improbable NFC Championship showdown with the Green Bay Packers.
A coincidence, of course.
We lost in the NFC Championship Game that year, but my loyalty to the hometown team was embedded in my soul that day. With my dislike for the Packers as the only real sticking point, I could find a rooting interest for any team on the field during a game.
Give me the Cleveland Browns and Arizona Cardinals, and I can figure out a team to root for or against. But all rooting interests sway decisively towards the Panthers if and when you roll into Carolina. That's how I've operated for a while now.
Yet something happened to me in the past few years. My fervent support for the lowly Panthers (2-14, baby!) hasn't changed, but my perspective of the game has undergone a fundamental shift.
I've begun to watch out for possible feuds or rivalries that could transcend our fickle attention spans and explode into full-scale "we'll be following these guys/teams for ten years" territory.
Perhaps the budding young journalist inside me wants to cover a historic story one day. Or maybe I'm just growing older, and desire to live through a great rivalry that I can share with my children one day.
So, I've taken to the Internet, scanning pages full of statistics and recaps, looking at anything that might help me deduce who the next breakout star would be. For a time (before my shrinking budget forced me to transition—kicking and screaming—to a world without cable), ESPN News was as indispensable to me as air.
Whenever the stars would begin to align, and the promise of a great rivalry hung heavily in the cold winter air, I'd lap it up with a spoon. My appetite for great rivalries was and remains ravenous.
So, you can imagine what the buildup for Bears-Packers was like for me.
Beginning around the time Green Bay outlasted the Eagles during the Wild Card Weekend, my attention was drawn to the specter of a Green Bay/Chicago showdown. The Bears and Packers, of course, have as much love for one another as Iran and Israel.
The vile hatred that exists between these two franchises and their fan bases is nothing new to football fans. But this year, Bears versus Packers meant something more than it had in the past few decades.
In my lifetime, watching the Bears and Packers get together was like seeing a regional college rivalry play out. The games were immensely entertaining, but it meant more to the Midwest than it did to the rest of us.
The Favre-led Packers of the 1990s were a clearly superior team, while the Lovie Smith-era Bears narrowed the gap considerably in the past four years. We just couldn't get both teams at a level where they could simultaneously lay claim to being one of the best two teams in the NFL.
As the Red Sox-Yankees Rivalry demonstrated, it's only when the two teams embroiled in a feud elevate themselves to the "we're not losing" pantheon level of competition that fans truly begin to appreciate the quality of a rivalry.
So when the Bears advanced to Super Bowl XLI under the leadership of Brian Urlacher, and the Packers began to load up around Favre's heir apparent, Aaron Rodgers, in 2008, the promise of a legendary showdown between the two teams became more than just a pipe dream for football purists. It became one of the underrated "what ifs" of the last five years:
What if the Bears and Packers met in the playoffs? Would it supplant Dallas and Washington as the marquee rivalry in the NFC? Could these two teams find their way into a Conference Championship Game against one another?
Then Jay Cutler arrived in Chicago, and the bar was raised a little higher.
Let it be known that I prefer rivalries between players more than I do rivalries between teams. Team grudges have the luxury of going on for as long as the two teams are in existence.
Unless the world implodes tomorrow, you'll have Duke/UNC, Red Sox/Yankees, Celtics/Lakers and Bears/Packers for a long, long time. Those franchises aren't going anywhere, and all it takes is a new collection of standout players to reignite the feud.
Player rivalries, though—that to me heightens the suspense to unparalleled levels. The career of any athlete is finite; you have only been given so many years to ply your trade before time takes it away.
When you have two players, preferably important leaders on the field (like, say, quarterbacks), and you set them up to stand in opposition to one another in the same division, or even the same conference...that's when special things start to happen.
The window of a Brady-Manning type rivalry is ever so short, which is why watching the start of one is so special for a fan of the game. When Jay Cutler arrived in Chicago, we had two historic franchises fielding two of the game's premier young quarterbacks, on two of the NFC's best teams.
Everything was building up to Sunday's NFC Championship clash.
You had Rodgers, the surgeon whose precision strikes and masterful placement helped annihilate the Atlanta Falcons in the Divisional Round. You had Cutler, the gunslinger whose deep bombs against the upstart Seahawks were almost Madden-esque.
The back-stories were just as intriguing: You had a guy in Green Bay who was trying to step out of the shadow of No. 4. In Chicago, there was a young quarterback who was trying to shake the stigma of being poorly suited for big-time games.
Both Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler had something to prove.
Sunday, the stakes couldn't have been higher for both teams—a trip to the Super Bowl, maybe the last until 2013.
The chance to throttle the hated rival, and gain immortality amongst their respected fan bases.
If only the Battle of the Midway, as I had planned to call it, lived up to the hype.
Truth be told, I think our expectations for Sunday's showdown between the Bears and Packers were a little unrealistic. When such a momentous showdown looms with so many subplots, those aforementioned "what if's" often set the bar too high.
I needed a 38-34 shootout to justify the hype, with either Rodgers or Cutler being dragged off the field screaming "it's not over!" towards the victorious opponent. I needed the prospect of Cutler-Rodgers II to keep me excited during the impending lockout.
The game was quite exciting, of course. The Packers couldn't quite put the Bears away, as Chicago finally started to come alive at the end. Unheralded stars and young rookies elevated themselves to the significance of the moment, and the decision was still in doubt with a minute to go as Chicago marched toward the tying score.
Just one problem: It was the wrong quarterback playing for the Bears.
Jay Cutler was flat from the start, overthrowing open receivers and looking positively green out on the field. At some point, Cutler's knee got banged up, and the showdown between the quarterbacks went up in smoke.
Perhaps I'm looking too much into it, but the Cutler injury was a bit suspicious to me. We know his elbow was bloodied, but wouldn't he know when his knee got hurt?
There was no indication of a lingering problem leading up to the game, because John Clayton would have dissected it every five minutes in the week leading up to the game. The injury had to have happened during the game, so why doesn't Cutler know when it happened? Was the adrenaline masking the pain? Was he too stubborn to acknowledge the severity of the injury when it happened?
Was he overwhelmed by the moment, and needed an out?
Lest we forget, even Aaron Rodgers had a sub-par performance on Sunday. At the start of the game, Rodgers was airing it out like he had against the Falcons the week before. He racked up seventy-plus yards on the way to a brilliant rushing touchdown to cap off the drive.
On the second drive, things were looking just the same: Packers rushing up the middle, Rodgers taking twenty-yard chunks with the passing game. Then, a play happened that really changed the dynamic of the game.
Rodgers dropped back to pass, and found a WR racing down the sideline. Just as he threw, though, Julius Peppers (who had beaten Chad Clifton's replacement on the Green Bay offensive line) came off the corner and leveled Rodgers. The pass sailed a bit, and was closer to being intercepted than Joe Buck and Troy Aikman acknowledged.
He'd been incredibly accurate thus far, but after the first-down shellacking from Peppers, Rodgers hoisted up two more incompletions and never looked completely secure in the pocket again.
In the end, fans of the Green Bay Packers couldn't really care less about the state of the rivalry. Their team beat the Bears and their third-string QB, Caleb Hanie, and now march on to face the Pittsburgh Steelers in an anticipated Super Bowl showdown.
Chicago fans will lament the Cutler injury and start scanning the game footage like the Zapruder Film, looking for the seminal moment when Cutler's knee went out. For casual fans looking for a great game, they at least got an exciting final quarter.
The game, though underwhelming, was serviceable enough for government work. But for a lowly blogger from Charlotte, North Carolina, something was lost on Sunday.
Maybe Cutler bounces back in 2012, and we see a major-league effort from he and Rodgers in a rematch. Perhaps the window hasn't completely closed on a future rivalry between the two.
Yet first impressions are quite lasting, and the impression after Sunday's NFC Championship showdown was one that we'd quietly anticipated with dread. Rodgers is moving on to bigger and better things, while Cutler will have to rehabilitate his image before we can take him seriously as a big-game threat again.
In the end, I'll remember the Showdown on the Midway in 2011 as the greatest "what if" in recent memory. I'll remember the day of the birth of a great rivalry that never was, and perhaps, was never meant to be.
It could have been something so much more than it was. It could have been something truly special, in a era when the league is so quick to sacrifice that for more money.
Alas, the hope of a historic rivalry is lost, and is presumed dead. May it rest in peace.
Lord knows, I'll have all of next year to remember it.