Riding a new horse

Times Staff Writer

Go to Denver for tonight's pivotal game against the Seattle Seahawks and you'll find hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of Jay Cutlers around Invesco Field.

His is suddenly the hottest jersey in the Mile High City, and virtually everyone in the Broncos-crazy state cannot wait to see if the rookie quarterback who wears No. 6 could possibly be the next No. 7.

Comparing Cutler to the legendary John Elway is unfair, yet the expectations in Denver could scarcely be higher. He takes over a 7-4 team coming off consecutive losses and reeling from an error-filled Thanksgiving Day defeat at Kansas City.

The Broncos traded up four spots to select Vanderbilt's Cutler 11th in last spring's draft, the same slot where the Pittsburgh Steelers chose Ben Roethlisberger two years earlier. In February, Roethlisberger, then 23, became the youngest starting quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl.

For Cutler, there's no shelter from the pressure, even in his own locker room.

"Tom Brady didn't have any experience, Roethlisberger, he didn't have a whole lot, and they won Super Bowls," cornerback Champ Bailey recently told the Denver Post. "Who says this guy can't do it?"

And considering how things have gone for NFL quarterbacks in this strange and unpredictable season, Bailey could be onto something.

Few could have guessed that there would be such a dramatic reversal of fortunes for Roethlisberger and Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck, last season's Super Bowl quarterbacks, or such a skyrocket ride to stardom for Dallas' Tony Romo and San Diego's Philip Rivers, or that oft-overlooked passers such as Buffalo's J.P. Losman and Miami's Joey Harrington would quietly find their groove.

With the help of STATS LLC, a look at some of the quarterback surprises so far this season:

* Romo -- Since replacing Drew Bledsoe, the inspiration for "Romomania" is 4-1 as a starter and has a passer rating so high it could trigger nosebleeds. His 110.8 rating is the fifth-highest in NFL history for a quarterback with at least 150 passes thrown. It ranks up there with Steve Young in 1994, Joe Montana in 1989 and Daunte Culpepper in 2004. Still, Romo is determined to stay grounded. Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells refers to hype as "cheese," and last week his quarterback told reporters, "I don't really like cheese." Funny, he's from Wisconsin.

* Eli Manning -- Facing what could be the biggest game of his career, and furiously trying to pull out of a statistical tailspin, Manning leads the host New York Giants against the Cowboys today. The once-promising Giants have lost three in a row, and Manning is feeling the heat. "You get to a point where you're almost desperate and you try to force the ball," he said, referring to his fourth-quarter interception against Tennessee last Sunday that led to a shocking defeat. "That never does any good."

* Losman -- Before the season, he was widely regarded as just another guy, an average player for a so-so team. Whereas the 5-6 Bills are nothing special, Losman is having an outstanding season. He has completed 63.8% of his passes, up from 49.6% last season, and he's coming off a career-best 75% game against Jacksonville. Suddenly, he has made Buffalo worth watching.

* Roethlisberger -- First, the off-season motorcycle accident. Then, the emergency appendectomy to start the season. Now, the Steelers quarterback has hit a colossal slump. He's 3-7 as a starter this season after a 22-3 record in his first two seasons. And his 19 interceptions in 2006 are more than he had in 2004 and 2005 combined. People say that everything after the Super Bowl is a comedown, but wow ...

* Rivers -- Before the season, Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Norm Chow told The Times that San Diego's Rivers, whom he coached as a North Carolina State freshman, would someday lead the Chargers to the Super Bowl. That someday could come this season. Rivers, who sat for two seasons behind Drew Brees, has exceeded already lofty expectations. He has been a stabilizing force for the 9-2 AFC West leaders and has been even better on the road than at home.

* Brady -- For visiting teams, playing at Foxborough, Mass., used to be the NFL's most daunting challenge. That's not the case anymore, and part of the reason is the Patriots' Brady hasn't been as consistent at home. In fact, his quarterback rating is 106.2 on the road but 72.9 at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots are 3-3 at home and 5-0 on the road. That's probably a good thing for them, because they could be frequent fliers in the postseason.

* Rex Grossman -- On a play-to-play basis, Chicago's Grossman can look either like the best or worst quarterback you've ever seen. He can throw needle-threading passes, or put one right between the numbers of a defender. If the Bears are going to make a Super Bowl run, and they certainly appear poised for one, they'll need more consistency from their young quarterback. There have been four six-turnover games by individual NFL teams this season, and half of those were turned in by the Bears.

* Harrington -- Ever so quietly, and after everyone had written off Miami for the season, the Dolphins backup has assembled the best run of his career. Harrington is on a career-best, four-game winning streak that began with a stunning victory at Chicago. His completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating have gone up each week during that stretch. The 5-6 Dolphins are still ultra-longshots to make the playoffs, but their season isn't entirely over.

And, as we've seen, particularly with quarterbacks in 2006, anything can happen.




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Fast start

Dallas' Tony Romo has the fifth-highest single-season rating by a quarterback with at least 150 passes thrown.

*--* Quarterback, Year Team Rating Peyton Manning, 2004 Ind 121.1 Steve Young, 1994 SF 112.8 Joe Montana, 1989 SF 112.4 Daunte Culpepper, 2004 Min 110.9 Tony Romo, 2006 Dal 110.8




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