CHICAGO - The Packers came to Soldier Field and won the trophy named after George Halas, the greatest figure in Bears history. Now they'll go on to Cowboys Stadium to try to win the one named after their own luminary, Vince Lombardi.
Aaron Rodgers led two early touchdown drives before Green Bay disposed of two Bears quarterbacks and withstood the furious charge of a third to secure a 21-14 win in yesterday's NFC Championship Game.
A second interception by undrafted rookie cornerback Sam Shields - who didn't even play defense until his senior season at Miami - sealed the win. That turnover came after an interception return for a touchdown by nose tackle B.J. Raji made it 21-7 and appeared to seal it. But it might have been another play that allowed the Packers to become the first NFC sixth seed to reach a Super Bowl. They'll face the Steelers on Feb. 6.
After Brian Urlacher picked off a pass at the Bears' 6-yard line midway through the third quarter, Rodgers was able to get a hand on the linebacker's foot and trip him at the Bears' 45. It prevented a touchdown, preserved a 14-0 lead and played a big role in allowing the Packers to advance to the Super Bowl for the first time since they lost to the Broncos at the end of the 1997 season.
Although Rodgers has spent most of January putting up some of the best playoff quarterback numbers of all time, he said it is the defense that has been a little underrated. Maybe he just wanted to help his defensive teammates with one of the biggest tackles in Green Bay history.
"It was probably one of my better tackles," Rodgers said. "I don't get paid to tackle, but that was probably one of my better plays of the day."
He had a few others, especially early. The Packers scored TDs on two of their first four possessions, on a 1-yard run by Rodgers on a naked bootleg and a 4-yard run by rookie James Starks.
The game had the feel of a 14-0 blowout as the Bears couldn't move the ball. Their first three possessions ended with three punts and a total of 33 yards. The teams traded picks just before halftime to keep it a 14-point game and Rodgers made his tackle that maintained the status quo.
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler left with a knee injury after one second-half series. Todd Collins threw four incompletions before Chicago finally found some offensive rhythm when third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie came in late in the third quarter. He led an eight-play, 67-yard drive keyed by a 32-yard pass to Johnny Knox to the 1 and capped by Chester Taylor's 1-yard run.
Trying to engineer a tying drive from deep in Bears territory, Hanie tried to hit Matt Forte on a screen pass on third-and-5 from his 15. But Raji, the 337-pound nose tackle, had dropped into coverage and intercepted the pass. He celebrated during every seismic step of the 18-yard return for a touchdown.
"You never dream of a touchdown as a nose tackle," Raji said. "I was like, man, he threw this ball to me, I just have to catch it."
Despite the blow to the gut, the Bears didn't curl up. They came back and drove 60 yards in four plays, taking up only 1:21 of game clock, to close to within 21-14. Hanie threw a deep pass to Earl Bennett, who jumped between Charles Woodson and Nick Collins at the 17 and ran in for a 35-yard touchdown.
The Bears then forced a three-and-out and had the ball with a chance to drive for a tying score with 2:53 remaining. They even converted a fourth-and-1 at midfield and got to the 27 with 1:15 left. But on third-and-3 from there, they tried an ill-advised end-around run to Bennett that was stopped for a loss of 2.
On fourth-and-5, they had to rely on Hanie. He tried to hit Knox deep but Shields, a receiver for most of his football life, made a play on the pass as if it had been thrown to him and intercepted it.
All that was left for Rodgers to do was take a knee and end it. For the third time in these playoffs, a Packers game ended that way, and each time it has, Rodgers has kept the ball.
He's hoping he'll be taking a knee late in the evening of Feb. 6. That would give him four souvenirs and the Packers four Super Bowl titles.