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NFC North gives Cutler short window to do something huge

Jay Cutler looks to pass during practice at training camp at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais on Friday. | Nam Y. Huh/AP

We can talk all we want about all the players on every NFL team, analyze them to death. But we all know it’s the quarterbacks who matter most.

The last 15 Super Bowls have been won by these QBs: Tom Brady (four), Ben Roethlisberger (two), Peyton Manning (two), Eli Manning (two), Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Brad Johnson, Joe Flacco and Russell Wilson.

Debate Brad Johnson if you please, but those are some mighty good helmsmen.

Go back to the start, past Trent Dilfer, Mark Rypien and Doug Williams (three more exceptions who maybe prove the point), and you’ve got almost nothing but the best of the best as Super Bowl champs: Kurt Warner, John Elway, Brett Favre, Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Joe Montana, Jim Plunkett, Joe Theismann, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, Ken Stabler, Bob Griese, John Unitas, Len Dawson, Joe Namath, Bart Starr.

Basically, a Hall of Fame shelf right there.

But back to the Bears and the NFC North, which the Bears need to win on a regular basis to even think about making an appearance with the Super Bowl greats. Who are the division quarterbacks who stand in the Bears’ way? In order of skill and danger: the Green Bay Packers’ Rodgers, the Detroit Lions’ Matthew Stafford and the Minnesota Vikings’ Teddy Bridgewater.

The Bears counter, of course, with Jay Cutler, the unlikely but now-certified team veteran entering his eighth year at the Chicago wheel. The question, as it has been since he arrived as an immature dice roll from the Denver Broncos in 2008, is whether Cutler is good enough to lead the Bears to a championship.

Now 33, Cutler in some ways had his best season as a pro last year, finishing with 3,659 passing yards, 21 touchdowns, just 11 interceptions and a passer rating of 92.3, his highest ever. The Bears were bad in 2015, but Cutler, believe it or not, was pretty good.

It seems to this scribe that Cutler, who has grown and matured as a human more than any Chicago athlete since Walter Payton or Ryne Sandberg, is just barely good enough at this point — the zenith of his career before the certain age-related decline — to win big.

Unfortunately, this is not a super Bears team backing him up. And he likely will be treading water before he sinks to the bottom a year or so from now.

But never mind that. Let’s think John Fox-positive! Let’s look at the opposition.

Rodgers. This guy, when he is on, is incredible. His passes look almost like handoffs. Where do you want it? Low? High? Where can’t the defender touch it? Right there? Easy. But without favorite target Jordy Nelson last year, Rodgers had to pass to a bunch of lessers and nobodies, and his yards per attempt — a stat where he had been no lower than fifth in the NFL the previous four years — plunged to 30th in the league.

Nope, even the best can’t do it alone. The Packers went 0-3 in the division at home in 2015. Rodgers will turn 33 this season. Is his magic hibernating? Or is it faded? Cutler can only pray Rodgers isn’t aging well.

Stafford. He took the helm for the Lions the day Cutler began with the Bears. He routinely throws for a million yards — well, an average of 4,635 the last five seasons — and his potential seems unlimited. But he has never won a playoff game.

Is that his fault? Hmm. It’s hard to compartmentalize this stuff. But without receiver Calvin Johnson, who retired as a beat-up, over-tackled superstar this offseason, Stafford is not going to find his path any easier.

Bridgewater. The wild card.

It’s hard to say Bridgewater, in his third season, is a youngster (you are mindful of how NFL players get old fast?). But he is only 23, and the big question is whether he can improve on his 3,231 passing yards last season and 88.7 passer rating.

Those aren’t bad numbers, especially for a kid. But they’re not Super Bowl-great. And there’s something about Bridgewater — maybe his unusual, almost-sidearm throwing motion — that makes me think he’ll never be an elite quarterback. It’s not ridiculous to note that Bridgewater’s small hands — 9.25 inches from pinkie tip to thumb tip — might be a fumble and control issue forever. Who knows?

Let’s just say Cutler can’t be ruled out as the NFC North’s QB leader. But his time to shine is right now.

Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.