In AFC and NFC championships, Roethlisberger shares spotlight with younger Sanchez, Rodgers and Cutler

Mark Sanchez of the Jets is one of a trio of fresh faces at quarterback in the National Football League's conference title games.
Mark Sanchez of the Jets is one of a trio of fresh faces at quarterback in the National Football League's conference title games. (Jim Rogash/getty Images)
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 22, 2011; 11:38 PM

The NFL playoffs have been synonymous in recent years with names such as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees. But with the exception of the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, who is pursuing his third Super Bowl title, the quarterbacks playing in Sunday's AFC and NFC title games suggest a changing of the guard is under way.

The New York Jets' Mark Sanchez, Chicago Bears' Jay Cutler and Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers symbolize a new generation of young quarterbacks jostling to unseat Manning, Brady and other established veterans as the sport's transcendent passers and most celebrated big-game winners.

"You don't get here unless you're one of those guys or on the brink of being one of those guys," Bears General Manager Jerry Angelo said.

The NFL is in the most passing-friendly era in its history, thanks to the combination of a group of talented quarterbacks and offense-assisting rule changes in recent years. This was the highest-scoring NFL regular season in 45 years, with an average of 44.07 total points scored per game. The average of 443.1 passing yards per game was the most in league history, and the 751 touchdown passes league-wide were a record. A record 22 quarterbacks reached 3,000 passing yards.

The sport always has been about the quarterbacks. But that is more pronounced than ever.

"I look at the last two Super Bowls," Angelo said. "It was about the quarterbacks and your ability to rush the quarterback. Roethlisberger against [former Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt] Warner, that's what that was about. And then last year with Manning and Brees, those two offenses were going up and down the field.

"That old saying that defense wins games? No. I look at it now that defense keeps you in games but offenses win it. You have to score points. You very well might be seeing a preview this weekend of things to come at that position."

A challenger in New York

All four of the championship-game quarterbacks are former first-round draft picks, so none is an out-of-nowhere story. But there has been some turbulence in the career of each of them, even though none has reached age 30.

Roethlisberger, at 28, is the oldest of the group and the most accomplished. He has won two Super Bowls, one fewer than Brady but one more than Manning or Brees.

The season began with Roethlisberger serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy. Since receiving the punishment, Roethlisberger has worked to rebuild his public image and was given the Pittsburgh media's annual "Chief Award" for his cooperation with reporters.

"I know that I'm probably not ever going to win a league MVP, probably never going to win a passing title," Roethlisberger said. "But that's not why I play the game. I just go out and try and win football games and try and win championships."

Beating Roethlisberger in the AFC championship game in Pittsburgh would give Sanchez and the Jets road triumphs over Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks on three straight weekends. They won at Indianapolis against Manning and the Colts in their playoff opener and beat Brady and the Patriots in New England last weekend.

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