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SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

Final four quarterbacks come with a good pedigree

Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, Packers' Aaron Rodgers, Bears' Jay Cutler and Jets' Mark Sanchez were all first-round draft picks. They're all successful too, but in different ways . . . sometimes vastly different.

January 18, 2011|Sam Farmer

Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Chicago's Jay Cutler and Mark Sanchez of the New York Jets — four NFL quarterbacks, four distinct styles, four different paths to this point . . . and one thing in common:

They were all first-round picks.

It's the first time since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 that all four quarterbacks in the conference title games were selected in the opening round. More important, each of the four has rounded into a legitimate star, a centerpiece of his team's push to reach the Super Bowl.

Even though the Steelers, Packers, Bears and Jets all have top-10 defenses, each has placed its destiny in the hands of its quarterback — passers who blazed through the divisional round with a combined 10 touchdown passes and no interceptions.

"None of these guys are caretakers," said CBS analyst Boomer Esiason, a former All-Pro quarterback. "They're the reasons that their teams are winning."

A look at the four, and how they got here:

Roethlisberger

Selected 11th in 2004 — behind quarterbacks Eli Manning and Philip Rivers — Roethlisberger is the focal point of Pittsburgh's offense and has two Super Bowl rings.

He's at his most dangerous to an opponent when the play has broken down, and he's scanning for receivers, streetball-style. He's so big and difficult to bring down, he can extend plays that would have been over for other quarterbacks. He doesn't rattle easily, even after Oakland's Richard Seymour slugs him on the chin, or Baltimore's Haloti Ngata smashes his nose.

"If Ben gets banged around a little bit, it sort of gets his attention," said the NFL Network's Joe Theismann, who directed Washington to two Super Bowls. "That helps him focus."

Even though the Steelers no longer have speedy receiver Santonio Holmes, traded to the Jets in the off-season, they have no shortage of burners who can stretch the field, namely Mike Wallace and rookies Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders. Tight end Heath Miller is a big target down the middle and, of course, there's All-Pro Hines Ward, who doesn't have great speed but always has the savvy to create separation.

The Jets will try to keep Roethlisberger in the pocket, because the alternative —his twisting loose and turning a broken play into a big gain — is often the game-changing moment.

Jets Coach Rex Ryan, the team's defensive mastermind, "will do absolutely everything he can think of to make sure Roethlisberger doesn't scramble," said UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel, who coached with Ryan in Baltimore.

"The Jets may not bring as much pressure in this game," Neuheisel said, "because if you come from one side, you'll end up with this guy bailing out, and that's where he ends up making almost all of his plays."

Sanchez

Drafted fifth out of USC in 2009, Sanchez is already in his second AFC championship game. He's 4-1 in playoff games — twice as many postseason victories as legendary Jets quarterback Joe Namath had — and all of those have been on the road.

Once asked not to lose games, Sanchez now can be counted on to win them. Against New England, a team with an NFL-record 28 consecutive regular-season home victories, he had three touchdown passes and a 127.3 rating.

"He's only been in the league for two years, and . . . he's not going to be looked at as the weakness of the team, but as the strength," Ryan said. "And I think you're seeing that right now."

Sanchez also benefits from an outstanding supporting cast of receivers — led by Braylon Edwards, Holmes and tight end Dustin Keller — and a running game that finished fourth in the league.

His statistics were by no means dazzling this season. His passer rating of 75.3 ranked 27th among starting quarterbacks, and he had 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. But he has won games when they counted most.

"If you keep him in the pocket and ask him to throw a corner route, you've got about a one-in-four chance of it being a catchable ball," Theismann said. "Yet when you get to crunch time in a game, when he has to make a throw, the kid delivers."

Watch for Sanchez to throw a lot of quick passes Sunday, while sprinkling in a few deep shots downfield.

Rodgers

Before waiting around in Green Bay to replace Brett Favre, and then to pick up his first playoff victory (10 days ago), Rodgers spent what must have felt like an eternity in the green room, waiting to be selected. He was chosen 24th, hours after San Francisco took quarterback Alex Smith at No. 1.

Now, Rodgers has made the Packers look very smart. He has emerged as one of the league's elite quarterbacks, and is coming off consecutive three-touchdown performances at Philadelphia and Atlanta.

"There is no question that Aaron Rodgers has finally filled the entire glass of potential that we'd all waited for," Esiason said.

It's not just Rodgers who's on a roll. Coach Mike McCarthy is drawing up game plans as well as New Orleans' Sean Payton did a year ago.

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