Chicago, IL (Sports Network) – Aaron Rodgers was perfect on two first-half scoring drives, nose tackle B.J. Raji scored on an interception return in the fourth quarter and the Green Bay Packers held on to beat the Chicago Bears 21-14 to win the NFC Championship on Sunday.
Rodgers, who finished with 244 yards passing, rushed for a one-yard touchdown on the game’s opening drive to give the Packers a lead they would never relinquish — even as the game grew tight in the second half.
Down to third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie, Chicago rallied for two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Hanie also had the Bears in Green Bay territory inside the final minute, but was intercepted on a fourth down pass by Packers cornerback Sam Shields, ending the game.
The first playoff meeting between the longtime rivals in more than 69 years came to a more dramatic end than could have been expected after starting Bears quarterback Jay Cutler left the game at the start of the third quarter.
“We felt we had them on the ropes there for a while, but we just couldn’t get it to a three-score game,” said Packers head coach Mike McCarthy. “I think that says a lot about them as a football team.”
Green Bay moved on to its first Super Bowl in 13 years, setting up a date in Dallas with the winner of Sunday’s AFC Championship Game between the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Packers were only the second team ever to win three road games to make the Super Bowl. They also joined the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers as the only sixth seeds to advance to the Super Bowl — a feat the Jets could match.
Rodgers was 17-of-30 with two interceptions, doing most of his damage in the first half. James Starks rushed 22 times for 74 yards and a touchdown in the second quarter that gave the Packers a 14-0 halftime lead, and Greg Jennings caught eight passes for 130 yards in the win.
Cutler threw one pass in the second half, knocked out of the game by a knee injury that Chicago head coach Lovie Smith said he suffered at the end of the first half.
“I feel bad for him,” said Rodgers, “but I’m happy we’re moving on.”
Backup Todd Collins failed to complete any of his four passes before giving way to Hanie. Once the third-stringer was in, Cutler was no longer able to return.
“Jay hurt his knee. He couldn’t go,” Smith said, tersely answering questions about his starter’s status. “The trainers, doctors, they were the ones who made that decision.”
Hanie, surprised as anyone that the Bears needed his services in such a big spot, was 13-of-20 for 153 yards and led both Chicago scoring drives.
“I feel really good about what Caleb was able to do. We had an opportunity at the end to tie the game. That was Caleb,” said Smith.
“You don’t expect to come in on a day like today,” said Hanie, “but that’s just what happens sometimes.”
Hanie threw a 32-yard pass to Johnny Knox on his first series, setting up Chester Taylor’s one-yard touchdown run to get the Bears within 14-7 early in the fourth quarter.
But he didn’t see the 330-pound Raji on a short pass intended for Matt Forte, and the Packers lineman stepped in front of the pass and returned it 18 yards for a touchdown and 21-7 Packers lead.
Hanie and Earl Bennett connected on a 35-yard touchdown pass four plays into the next drive, getting the Bears within seven points with 4:43 remaining in the game.
But, looking deep for Knox, Hanie was intercepted on a fourth-down pass in the final minute by Shields, who scampered back near midfield. Rodgers kneeled to end the game.
“Our guys just continued to fight,” said Smith — but they had to do it mostly without Cutler, who was just 6-of-14 for 80 yards and an interception before leaving.
“Jay was hurt. I don’t question his toughness,” Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said. “He’s one of toughest guys on the team.”
Urlacher intercepted Rodgers at the Chicago six-yard line in the third quarter, keeping potential points off the board. And he could have returned it for a touchdown — except Rodgers hustled to trip him up near midfield.
“Probably one of my better tackles,” said Rodgers.
Indeed, in the biggest game of the NFL’s oldest rivalry, the Packers seemed to have the best player on the field.
Rodgers proved that much during Green Bay’s 84-yard scoring drive to open the game.
He completed all four of his passes for 76 yards, hitting Jennings for 22 yards and 26 yards on the first two plays. He also found Starks for a six- yarder and hit Jordy Nelson for 22 yards.
The Packers scored on the seventh play, with Rodgers scrambling around the left side of his line and reaching inside the pylon to make it 7-0.
Rodgers was 10-of-15 for 156 yards in the first half. Along with Starks, he led Green Bay’s other first-half scoring drive early in the second quarter.
He threw two passes on the drive — 16 yards to Brandon Jackson and 15 yards to Nelson — and Starks capped the brief 44-yard jaunt by stretching the ball over the goal line on a four-yard run to make it 14-0.
With less than eight minutes to play in the half, the Bears passed on a 48- yard field goal attempt for a punt that netted them only 11 yards in field position.
Indeed, nothing much went Chicago’s way in the first half.
Forte stood out. He carried the ball eight times for just 28 yards, but also caught four passes for 44 yards. His biggest contribution, though, may have been recovering a fumble at the Bears’ 23 after Cutler was stripped by Shields.
Rodgers was intercepted on the ensuing Packers possession — his low pass bounced off Donald Driver’s foot and Lance Briggs was there to grab it. But Cutler threw an interception two plays later, with Shields diving for a pass intended for Knox.
“The way the offense came out early, it kind of got them on their heels. Then the defense just went out and smothered them early,” said Packers cornerback Charles Woodson.
“It was a team thing.”
It was the 182nd meeting between the teams since 1921 and only the second postseason meeting. The first took place December 14, 1941, when George Halas’ Bears defeated Curly Lambeau’s Packers 33-14 at Wrigley Field to capture the Western Division…Forte rushed 17 times for 70 yards and caught a game-high 10 passes for 90 yards…Jennings had his third career 100-yard playoff game…The Bears still hold a 92-84-6 lead in the all-time series…Chicago was in the NFC title game for the first time since 2007 — the year it lost to Indianapolis in the Super Bowl…Green Bay made back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997-98, winning the first one against New England, then losing to Denver…The 2007-08 Giants also won three road games to make the Super Bowl…Green Bay beat the Eagles in Philadelphia two weeks ago and dispatched top-seeded Atlanta last week.
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