By Mike Esposito —

The Bears 21-14 loss in the NFC title game couldn’t have been more strange if it came out of Hollywood.  Nearly coming back to tie the game with your 3rd string QB after being down 14?  Impossible – but it almost happened.

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It didn’t start well for the Bears, as the Packers scored almost immediately, after the Bears deferred to the second half upon winning the coin toss, and then quickly made it 14-0 on James Starks’ TD run early in the 2nd quarter.  The boo birds were out already and the game seemed headed for disaster.

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But, the defense stiffened, and despite a lack of scoring, the 2 touchdown deficit didn’t seem insurmountable.  It would have been, however, if Todd Collins stayed in the game for much longer.  The backup QB entered early in the 3rd quarter after Jay Cutler gave his injured knee a try on the first series, but couldn’t put any pressure on the knee.  Collins came in and immediately showed the same poor play and decision making as he did against Carolina when Cutler was out with a concussion.  It took only 2 series of Collins to make Lovie Smith turn to Caleb Hanie, the emergency 3rd quarterback at the start of the game and the near-hero of the day afterwards.  It was Hanie who provided the only spark offensively for the Bears,leading them on their 2 touchdown drives.  It was also his 2 interceptions, though, that cost the team – the first returned for a touchdown by BJ Raji and the second effectively ending the game by Sam Shields.

Scary questions to think about after the game – why did it take a 3rd string quarterback to rally a team in the NFC Championship Game?  Why is Collins on this roster?  And most importantly, does this put a permanent question mark, one that won’t be erased,  on Jay Cutler?  The rumblings were already starting in the press box – did Cutler take himself out or was he pulled?  Everyone afterwards said he was pulled, and Cutler’s injury apparently occurred in the 2nd quarter, but he finished the half.  Like it or not, his toughness was being questioned, and among those making statements were other NFL players (during the game) via Twitter.

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Center Olin  Kreutz used a few choice words unsuitable for radio while defending Cutler, who he said has taken hit after hit this year and gotten up every time.  Cutler wouldn’t comment and would only say they’d take an MRI on Monday to see what was wrong, and he also said he was pulled by the coaches, who felt he couldn’t finish the game.  But fans will undoubtedly question the franchise quarterback, who is probably headed for an offseason from hell, whether its deserved or not.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the weeks to come.