LAKE FOREST, Ill. — If Jay Cutler is nervous heading into his first playoff game, it was hard to tell this week. It actually was hard to tell anything about the strong-armed quarterback's mindset heading into the postseason.
This time, Cutler avoided the deep route.
"Guys are business as usual," he said.
The Chicago Bears will make their first playoff appearance in four years when they host the Seattle Seahawks in a divisional game today, and Cutler will get his first taste of the postseason. So it wasn't exactly business as usual around Halas Hall on Friday.
Not since the 2006 team made the Super Bowl have the Bears (11-5) been working this late, but they're here thanks to a dramatic turnaround that led to the NFC North championship and a first-round bye. Cutler, meanwhile, is leading a winner for the first time since his senior year in high school.
Now, the Bears are staring at a team that slipped into the playoffs with a 7-9 record and knocked off defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans last week behind a memorable touchdown run by Marshawn Lynch and a superb effort by Matt Hasselbeck.
The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback threw for four touchdowns as the Seahawks stunned the Saints 41-36 at Qwest Field. Now, he'll be making his club-record 11th postseason start.
"As a player, it's the stage that you love to play on," Hasselbeck said. "It's so much fun. It's a blast. I've been fortunate to get the opportunity to play in a bunch of playoff games, and you never forget them."
He remembers feeling "no anxiety" when he made his first playoff start in 2003.
The Seahawks were playing his former team Green Bay for the second time that season and Hasselbeck learned a lot about playing in the postseason. He wound up with 305 yards, but Green Bay won 33-27 in overtime when Al Harris returned an interception 52 yards for a touchdown.
That game is most remembered for Hasselbeck's bold prediction after Seattle won the overtime coin flip. "We want the ball and we're going to score!" he declared, moments before Harris picked off his pass and took it back to end Seattle's season.
"I was playing all my friends from Green Bay, all my guys that I was boys with in Green Bay," he said. "I was probably better friends with them than I was with my current teammates at the time. It was just one of those things where I said 'The heck with it, I'm just going to have fun. Just play loose.' And I played so much better that way, just not uptight and naive. I had no idea the attention that playoff games get, the hype that playoff games get. Every good or bad thing you do can kind of linger, but it's awesome."
That was the feeling for Hasselbeck last Saturday against New Orleans. It was a sharp contrast to his previous start at home against Atlanta when he got booed off the field and was replaced by Charlie Whitehurst.
But that's how Hasselbeck's first season under coach Pete Carroll has gone. There have been ups and downs, and with an expiring contract, his future is uncertain.
Carroll has said he wants him back. Hasselbeck has said he wants to play for a winner, whether it's Seattle or elsewhere.
There are no questions about Cutler's future in Chicago. There are plenty of doubts, though, about his decisions, his mechanics and his attitude.
Offensive coordinator Mike Martz questioned his demeanor when he was working as an NFL Network analyst last year, but it's been nothing but sweet talk between them this season, even when Cutler was getting knocked around early on.
He got sacked six times in a 23-20 loss to Seattle at Soldier Field after sitting out the previous game with a concussion. The Bears were in the middle of a 1-3 slide back then that nearly ruined their season, but they're a different team these days.
They settled on their starting offensive line, committed to the run and cut back on the deep drops by Cutler. It all added up to seven wins in eight games before a loss at Green Bay in the regular-season finale and less wear-and-tear on their quarterback.
Cutler got sacked more times this season (52) than he did his first three combined in Denver (51), and he kept coming back for more. If all the hard hits bothered him, he never let on in public.
"Everyone else on the outside forms their opinion based on nothing, pretty much," tight end Greg Olsen said. "They don't know him. They've never really spoken to him in a formal setting. They've never really been out with him. It's just kind of interesting sometimes to hear people who have never met someone talk about how they know exactly what they are."
As center Olin Kreutz said, "Until they put cameras in the huddle and on the sideline and tape everything ... you'll never know who guys really are."
Cutler isn't putting out the welcome mat.
He often doesn't make eye contact, has been known to dismiss a question with a snort. Even so, there's a charitable side. A diabetic, he's been known to visit sick children in hospitals.
But there's also that disconnect.
"I don't worry about that," Cutler said. "I don't know what my public image is."
A poor performance on Sunday won't help it.
Not since he caught the winning 12-yard TD off a lateral to give Heritage Hills High in Lincoln City the Indiana Class 3A championship had Cutler led a winning team.
He didn't do it at Vanderbilt. He didn't do it in Denver, either.
Now, finally, in his fifth season and second with the Bears he's doing just that.
"I'm probably not the first quarterback that hasn't been in the playoffs in the first five years and probably won't be the last," he said. "We're in a good situation now. We've just got to take advantage of it."