A cool view of heated rivalry

Rodgers, Cutler actually friends

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / January 23, 2011

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CHICAGO — Make no mistake, Packers fans and Bears fans hate each other.

They loathe each other. Meeting 181 times over 79 years will do that.

Bears fans like to poke fun at their more rural neighbors to the north, but deep down there’s envy that a city with a population of 125,000 has won more NFL championships (12) than Chicago (nine).

It had to be tough for Bears founder George Halas to borrow $1,500 from the Packers to meet payroll during the Great Depression.

Packers fans don’t like that the Bears have more Hall of Famers (26) than they do (21 — how can Jerry Kramer not be in!). And they don’t like that their neck of the woods is often an afterthought to Chicagoland. Down south they have the Bulls, Blackhawks, White Sox, and Cubs. Wisconsin has the Bucks, Brewers, and Bucky (as the University of Wisconsin Badgers are affectionately known). So they really just have the Packers (You betcha!).

To be sure, when the teams and their fans square off today at Soldier Field in a playoff game for the first time since 1941 — in the NFC Championship game, no less — the Midwest will stand still for 3 1/2 hours from Kankakee, Ill., to Marinette, Wis.

But here’s the thing: The two most important characters in this drama, quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers (Packers) and Jay Cutler (Bears), couldn’t be more detached from the hatred.

They actually, gasp, like each other.

“Jay and I are buddies, but we’re not going to text this week,’’ said Rodgers, who lauded Cutler for helping Rodgers’s brother, Jordan, decide to go to Vanderbilt.

“It’s a tough situation and I wish him the best except whenever we have to play them,’’ Cutler said.

Well, that’s good. Johnny “Blood’’ McNally and Red Grange are only half turning over in their graves.

“That’s a tough football team we are going to play. I think there’s a lot of respect in this rivalry,’’ Rodgers said. “There’s a respect level I think when you’re on the field. They have a number of guys who played in the league for a long time, and I think you can’t help but when you’re playing guys like that have respect for them and what they’ve done in their careers.

“But it’s about getting through this week, so there’s not going to be a whole lot of friendship out there until after the game.’’

Rodgers and Cutler couldn’t be more detached from the roots of the rivalry.

Rodgers, 27, embodies the traits of his native Chico, Calif. — he likes playing the guitar and golf.

Rodgers carries a constant chip on his shoulder for not getting much Division 1 interest during high school and having to go the junior college route.

He was miffed at some of the critics when he came out of University of California in 2005 — he still rolls his eyes at comments made by analyst Ron Jaworski before the draft — and how he had to sit in the draft green room with cameras fixed on him until the Packers finally drafted him 25th.

And then there were the Packers fans who berated and booed him as he supplanted Brett Favre in 2008, including a 7-year-old who hurled expletives at Rodgers as he drove into the player’s lot during training camp.

Sometimes you wonder if Rodgers is performing for his team or for his own justification.

Whatever it is, it’s working.

Thanks to more of an athletic delivery developed by coach Mike McCarthy, Rodgers has developed into arguably the NFL’s most talented weapon. Blessed with a big arm and laser accuracy, Rodgers can make any throw, and he will break the spirit of opponents with his feet.

His crowning achievement was last week’s win over the Falcons. He was 31 of 36 passing (86.1 percent) for 366 yards and three touchdowns.

“I think he’s definitely the quarterback we all hoped he would become,’’ McCarthy said. “He’s everything we hoped he’d be.’’

Cutler, 27, grew up a Bears fan in Santa Claus, Ind., but very loosely. He doesn’t care much about the rivalry.

Former and current teammates find him to be aloof. Sometimes they wonder how much he even likes playing football.

But, boy, what an arm. Nobody throws it down the field with so little effort.

Physically, he’s as tough as they come. He took a beating at Vanderbilt before being taken 11th overall by the Broncos in 2006. A trade landed him in Chicago last season, and he was subjected to a league-high 56 sacks this season.

But for Cutler it always comes down to turnovers. He’s thrown 79 interceptions (104 touchdowns) in five seasons. Cutler has been picked nine times by the Packers in four meetings.

“It has been a couple — I guess you could say — tough games,’’ Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “When you come down to a game like this, if you just protect the football a little bit — we had opportunities last time. There were a couple of picks that hurt us, but that’s what happened in the past.’’

For the Bears and the Packers, it’s about today. For their fans, it’s also about the past.

Just not the quarterbacks.

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