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CHICAGO (AP) – The Chicago Bears were rallying behind a young quarterback, forcing the Green Bay Packers to sweat out what looked like an easy win with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
No, it wasn’t Jay Cutler leading the charge.
The quarterback with the rocket arm was off target and out of sync even before he left with a knee injury, and the Bears couldn’t overcome a sluggish start in dropping the NFC championship game 21-14 to rival Green Bay at Soldier Field.
“It’s a lonely feeling,” said Cutler, who sat out most of the second half. “Go through training camp and everything else and get to this point and have an opportunity to get in the Super Bowl, it’s hard.”
It looked like offensive coordinator Mike Martz simply ran out of tricks against Dom Capers’ defense before third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie led a fourth-quarter comeback bid.
Then again, what could Martz do with his starter like performing like this?
Not since high school had Cutler led a winning team, and in his first NFC championship game, he forced passes, threw off his back foot and wound up going 6 for 14 for 80 yards and an interception. It was a sharp contrast from the previous game against Seattle, when Cutler joined Otto Graham as the only quarterbacks to throw for two touchdowns and run for two in a playoff game.
He was on the sideline after the opening drive in the second half with an unspecified knee injury and the Bears trailing 14-0. Todd Collins came in and the Bears went nowhere, so in came Hanie.
Cutler said the injury happened on the Bears’ final possession of the second quarter before he threw an interception. He played the rest of the half and tried to go back in the third, but aggravated it.
“We gave it a go that first series but I couldn’t really plant and throw, so they kind of pulled me,” said Cutler, who’s scheduled for an MRI on Monday.
He was asked what he was told by his coaches when he couldn’t return and said: “I knew that it was probably better that I didn’t. I knew my knee, I know my body.”
Veteran center Olin Kreutz said he saw Cutler’s knee shaking when he returned to the huddle after taking a hit to the outside of his leg and knew the quarterback was in trouble. He was surprised, actually, that Cutler stayed in the game and even more stunned when he came out for the third quarter.
“It was shaking right after he took the hit and walked back into the huddle,” Kreutz said. “It was swinging. I knew that one of his ligaments probably went.”
With Cutler on the sideline, the Soldier Field crowd grew even more quiet and the injury prompted unkind speculation from other players on their Twitter pages.
Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew wrote: “All I’m saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee … I played the whole season on one.”
And this from Deion Sanders: “Im telling u in the playoffs u must drag me off the field. All the medicine in pro lockerooms this dude comes out! I apologize bear fans! . . . Folks i never question a players injury but i do question a players heart.”
Cutler’s teammates don’t.
“He doesn’t complain when he gets hit,” linebacker Brian Urlacher said. “He goes out there and plays his (expletive) off every Sunday, he practices every single day, so no, we don’t question his toughness.”
Kreutz lashed out at the critics, saying, Maybe they should shut up.”
As for losing Cutler, he said, “It deflates you. … You’re very deflated when you first hear it, and then you get going.”
The Bears didn’t get going under the seldom-used Collins. He lasted two possessions before third-stringer Hanie came on and that’s when it got interesting.
An undrafted free agent out of Colorado State in 2008, he led the Bears to two fourth-quarter touchdowns but also got picked off twice. B.J. Raji returned the first 18 yards for a touchdown, and Sam Shields sealed the win with an interception in the final minute.
These teams had met 181 times and never had the stakes been higher. Only once had they played in the postseason, with the Bears winning at Wrigley Field in 1941, a week after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The odds that the Bears would even reach the playoffs this year seemed slim at best after they dropped three of four before their off week – an ominous sign for coach Lovie Smith, who was given orders to improve or else by ownership before the season. They were 4-3 and Cutler was getting knocked around like a human tackling dummy, but they used their time off well.
The Bears committed to the run and won seven of eight before dropping the regular-season finale at Green Bay.
Along the way, Cutler seemed to answer critics who questioned whether he was capable of leading a winner. His teammates stuck by him, too.
“We really have nothing to hang our heads about,” linebacker Lance Briggs said. “Hats off to the Packers, they’ll represent the NFC very well. Next year, the Chicago Bears will have their day.”
Aaron Rodger wasn’t even at his best and, still, he was better than the first, the second and the third quarterback used in vain by the Chicago Bears against their bitter rivals.
Rodgers ran for a score and made a TD-saving tackle in leading the Green Bay Packers into the Super Bowl.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” Rodgers said. “I’m at a loss for words.”
Rodgers played well enough to keep the Bears off balance all afternoon, Green Bay punter Tim Masthay kept Devin Hester under wraps and the Packers’ superb defense took care of the rest in knocking the Bears out of the playoffs.
It was the 182nd meeting in the league’s most historic feud, and the stakes had never been bigger.
Now the Packers (13-6) are headed to Dallas. And no matter what happens in the Super Bowl on Feb. 6, the Packers and their fans hold ultimate bragging rights over their foes to the south.
Green Bay will play the Pittsburgh Steelers, who topped the New York Jets 24-19 in the AFC championship game. The Packers opened as 2 1/2-point favorites for the game at Cowboys Stadium.
“We made a play to win the game and that’s all that matters,” Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. “Keep playing defense the way we know how, and it’s going to be tough for teams to beat us.”
All Jay Cutler could do was watch, having left the game with a knee injury early in the third quarter. Even before the injury, Cutler was having trouble moving the ball. Worse, he was getting booed by the home fans.
Primary backup Todd Collins replaced Cutler and was jeered even worse. Then little-known backup Caleb Hanie and the Bears (12-6) actually made it a game.
Chicago’s third-string quarterback rallied the Bears for a touchdown drive to cut the lead to 14-7 after Chester Taylor’s 1-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.
Hanie had a chance to tie the game after the Bears’ defense finally got a few stops, but threw a ball straight to Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji, who lumbered 18 yards into the end zone for a touchdown to give the Packers a 21-7 lead.
But Hanie wasn’t finished. He threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Earl Bennett to again cut the lead to seven points with 4:43 left.
The Bears forced a punt and got the ball back with under 3 minutes left. Hanie drove the Bears to the Green Bay 29-yard line, then threw a fourth-down interception to Sam Shields – the rookie’s second of the game.
Now all those Pro Bowl voters who didn’t think Rodgers was worthy can relax. They’re off the hook. Rodgers will be headed to the Super Bowl instead.
Rodgers proved ready for the biggest day of his brief but impressive career as the successor to Brett Favre, even if his final stat line didn’t look impressive after an ugly, hard-fought game.
He threw for 244 yards with two interceptions – a disappointment, given how well he had played lately. But his play in the first half was good enough to put the Bears in a two-touchdown hole, boggling a good defense that suddenly seemed to fall for every play-action fake.
Chicago was ready for a championship party under sunny skies and 20-degree temperatures, and went wild from the national anthem on. But Rodgers quieted them down quickly, marching the Packers on an opening drive then ended with Rodgers scrambling for a score.
The Bears went with a heavy dose of running back Matt Forte early on, with limited success.
Early in the second quarter, Brandon Jackson faked Brian Urlacher out for a long gain on a screen pass, and Rodgers’ pass to Jordy Nelson set up James Starks’ 4-yard touchdown run to give Green Bay a 14-0 lead.
It was the latest in a series of big moments for Rodgers, who has earned near-universal praise for the way he has played this season – especially since sitting out the Packers’ Dec. 19 loss at New England because of a concussion.
Rodgers has been on a hot streak ever since, and doing it under pressure. The Packers would have been out of the playoffs with a loss in either of their last two regular-season games, including the regular season finale against Chicago.
With the Packers leading 14-0 at halftime, Green Bay’s defense forced a three-and-out to begin the second half, and Rodgers went back to marching the Packers down the field.
With the Packers poised to put the game away, Rodgers instead tossed the ball to Urlacher on third-and-goal. He took off and ran down the Bears linebacker near midfield, barely preventing him from running it back for a touchdown when he grabbed him.
“I don’t think he saw me,” Urlacher said. “He threw it to me – then he tackled me.”
Rodgers’ play almost certainly saved a score and might have saved the game.
“I don’t get paid to tackle, but that was probably one of my better plays of the game,” Rodgers said.
Urlacher, who said earlier in the week that he voted for Rodgers for the Pro Bowl, walked away impressed.
“Great quarterback, no doubt about that,” Urlacher said.
But after Urlacher’s interception, the Bears couldn’t make anything happen with Collins in for Cutler, and appeared to be headed for a blowout until Hanie took over.
Packers players were surprised Cutler didn’t come back.
“You know if he doesn’t come back it had to be serious, not to come back and play in this game,” Charles Woodson said.
Matthews wasn’t sure when Cutler got hurt.
“Kinda wish they would have had Jay in there the whole time the way things were going,” Matthews said.
Bears coach Lovie Smith grew testy after being asked several questions about Cutler’s injury.
“He hurt his knee and he was out, all right?” Smith said. “There’s nothing else for me to tell you on that. I don’t know exactly when it happened, he couldn’t go and that was that.”
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