In the end, it wasn’t the sort of victory that Packers fans were hoping for.
Not that they’ll mind.
After a massively impressive opening drive that saw Aaron Rodgers cut up the Chicago Bears defense—the heart and soul of their archrivals—to the tune of 76 yards on 4-for-4 passing and a beautifully-designed rushing touchdown, the high-flying Packers offense was thereafter largely grounded.
Instead, Rodgers found himself almost upstaged by Caleb Haine, a little-used third-string quarterback out of Colorado State who improbably rallied the Bears to two fourth-quarter touchdowns after Jay Cutler (ineffective and injured) and Todd Collins (about as effective as Phil “Sussudio” Collins might have been) were chased from the game by the Packers’ swarming defense.
The problem for Haine was that for every touchdown drive he led his team on, he also threw an interception, both of which were killers for the home team.
The biggest undoubtedly came midway through the final quarter, as nose tackle B.J. Raji caught a poorly thrown ball from Hanie and lumbered 18 yards into the end zone to make the score 21-7.
Given the Bears’ ineptitude on offense, it seemed that Raji’s unlikely score was going to ice the game for Green Bay.
But Haine and receiver Earl Bennett had other ideas, as they connected for an impressive 35-yard touchdown just four plays later to narrow the Packers’ lead again to seven points.
On the play, Bennett made Packers safety Nick Collins look ridiculous, as the Bears receiver simply tiptoed past Collins for an all-too-easy score.
Had the Packers lost Sunday evening, Collins may have been the goat of Packers fans everywhere.
Fortunately for Collins, rookie cornerback Sam Shields—who played a spectacular game—was there to rescue him from that unseemly fate.
After another three-and-out by the Packers’ suddenly comatose offense—the unit gained a total of 40 yards on their last three meaningful drives—the Bears were threatening to send the game to overtime, this despite a questionable intentional grounding call against them on the final drive.
They had already converted on one crucial fourth-down situation and were now facing another.
With 37 seconds left and the Bears facing another fourth down (this time at the Packers’ 29-yard line), Shields made a diving grab of a Haine pass, effectively ending the game and sending the Packers to Dallas for their fifth Super Bowl appearance and first since 1997.
(“Effectively” because instead of falling on the ball, Shields unwisely got up and ran, which could have proved disastrous had he fumbled. He did not.)
Raji and Shields, who in the second quarter had nearly caused a turnover with a sack of quarterback Jay Cutler before earning his first interception of the game near the end of the first half, were the defensive MVPs of a game dominated by defense.
How much did the defenses overshadow the offenses? So much so that what proved to be perhaps the Packers’ biggest offensive play came when the unit was playing defense.
The play came on the Packers’ first offensive series of the second half. Already up 14-0 and having knocked Cutler out of the game, it appeared that the Packers, who were in the midst of a 77-yard drive that had gotten them to the Bears’ six-yard-line, were about to put the game out of reach.
But on a 3rd and 6, Rodgers made one of his few poor red-zone decisions, hitting Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher right in the gut.
Urlacher ran the interception back an impressive 39 yards, but he would surely have stumbled, bumbled, and rumbled for six points the other way had he not been tackled by the only man left to make a play.
Thanks to the utter futility of backup Todd Collins, the ensuing Chicago drive ended with a whimper three plays later, underscoring the importance of Rodgers’ tackle.
Despite his heroics on that play and on the first drive, the always self-critical Rodgers is not likely to crow much about his play on Sunday. Nor should he. Take away that first drive and Rodgers was a pedestrian 13-of-26 for 168 yards and two interceptions.
But give Rodgers credit for his mobility and evasiveness in the face of a heated Bears pass rush and for making something out of seemingly nothing several times.
In contrast, Jay Cutler, who faced similar pressure from the Packers’ pass rush, was absolutely terrible, completing just six of 14 passes with one interception before a knee injury forced him out of the game early in the second half.
For anyone who thought the NFC Championship Game would come down to who would play better, Rodgers or Cutler, they were partially right, though not in how they would have expected.
Rodgers was OK. Cutler was awful.
Besides Caleb Heine, Sam Shields, and BJ Raji, there were other stars—some likely, some not—in this game.
Perhaps the most unlikely of all was punter Tim Masthay, who, after not punting at all last week, was brilliant, landing five of his eight punts inside the Bears’ 20-yard line.
His kicks made Devin Hester, the Bears’ return threat extraordinaire, a complete non-factor. Hester returned three punts for a total of 16 yards.
Receiver Greg Jennings was Aaron Rodgers’s uncontested favorite receiver, finishing with eight catches for 130 yards. For anyone paying attention, his eight catches counted for nearly half of Rodgers’s completions.
And in defeat, Bears running back Matt Forte surely moved up some 2011 fantasy football projection sheets, touching the ball on 27 of Chicago’s 64 plays.
Forte finished with 70 yards rushing and 90 yards receiving, more than half of Chicago’s 301 total yards.
Despite the best efforts of Forte, Jennings and Heine, in the end Sunday’s NFC Championship Game belonged to the defense that made the most plays.
And that was—aided, of course, by Rodgers’ takedown of Urlacher—undoubtedly the Packers’ unit.
Bears-Packers matchups are rarely pretty, and the defensive victory like the one earned by Green Bay Sunday certainly wasn’t.
Not that Packers fans mind.