CHICAGO – When the naysayers counted the Green Bay Packers out after an 8-6 record with two games left to make the playoffs, they were in for a surprise. After quarterback Aaron Rodgers had more than a year to think about the early playoff exit last year, he did something about it. In the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field, Jan 23, Rodgers emerged from the shadows of Brett Favre and led the Packers to a 21-14 win against their longtime rivals, the Chicago Bears.
Green Bay was picked by many media experts as the team to make the Super Bowl before the regular season because of their talent. Injuries to key players forced them to take a different route through the back roads on the way to Dallas, site of Super Bowl XLV. They said that Rodgers couldn’t win the big games. Head coach Mike McCarthy, many thought, wasn’t the right coach to take the team to the next level. General manager Ted Thompson got mixed reactions when his eye for talent was questioned because he didn’t make trades for other players outside the organization who could have helped the team in the short term.
Veterans like Donald Driver, Scott Wells, Chad Clifton and Charles Woodson, who played in a Super Bowl with the Oakland Raiders, thought that after coming so close in the NFC Championship Game at Lambeau Field against the New York Giants three years ago, it would be their last hurrah. They are near the end of their careers.
After the sense of urgency hit the Packers in Week 14, they hit the ground running. If Green Bay was going to make it to the Super Bowl, they needed to win three playoff games, all on the road. That was their reward for snatching the last playoff spot and a No. 6 seed. The bitter pill Green Bay swallowed at Arizona in the first round last year became sweet revenge when they squeaked by the Bears to win the conference’s George Halas trophy. The Packers are the first NFC team in history to go to the Super Bowl as a sixth seed.
“You can’t get to where you’re going without adversity,” running back Brandon Jackson said. “We had a lot of adversity with the passing game, with the running game, with the injuries. We overcame that. It’s a good statement on our part that we stick together. We play hard, no matter what goes on.”
We watched the green and gold pick up where they left off in Atlanta when they jumped out to a 14-0 first half lead. In the second half, when the offense broke down, the defense saved the day. If it wasn’t for nose tackle B.J. Raji’s interception for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, the Packers probably would have let Chicago’s third string quarterback beat them.
Caleb Hanie began the game on the inactive list as the third quarterback. He was on standby when starter Jay Cutler hurt his knee in the second quarter with 42 seconds remaining. The injury occurred after he threw an interception to safety Sam Shields. Backup quarterback Todd Collins replaced Cutler and was pulled from the game after an ineffective outing.
Hanie cut Chicago’s 14-0 fourth quarter deficit in half with an eight play drive that running back Chester Taylor completed with a 1-yard touchdown run to trail by seven points. Two possessions later, Green Bay got their 14-point cushion back when Raji jumped the route by Chicago’s Matt Forte, caught the ball and ran 18 yards for the score while holding the ball like a loaf of bread. They led, 21-7. The Bears came right back and scored on a pass from Hanie to receiver Earl Bennett to cut the Green Bay lead to 21-14. They were driving for a tying score in their two-minute offense. With 47 seconds left in the game, the Packers turned off the lights on their rivals’ season with Shields’ second interception of the game.
“(Shields) knew that (Chicago) was going to be throwing at him a little bit more,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “The guy took the challenge and went out there. And obviously he had the ability to do it, and he went out there and made the plays. That’s a great thing about our defense. Any one of the guys you throw at, you really are taking a risk. We done our job. The front seven done their job in stopping the run and got those guys to throw the ball back there in the back end. That’s where we eat at.”
Chicago’s running game was dead as they gained only 83 yards. Hanie’s 153 passing yards didn’t hurt the Green Bay defense too bad and neither did Cutler’s six completions for 80 yards.
McCarthy credits Rodgers’ progress as a quarterback for stepping up when everything was on the line.
“I think that any young quarterback that gets his opportunity, there’s the ladder that you have to climb,” he said. “You have to first show that you belong as a starter. He definitely showed that in his first year. The next step is that you gotta win playoff games. He’s accomplished that now. And now he gets a challenge for the next rung, and that’s to be a Super Bowl champion.”
Green Bay outgained Chicago, 356-301. Also give credit to punter Tim Masthay. He did a great job with his punts, which allowed the coverage team to put the brakes on the Bears’ dangerous punt returner, Devin Hester. He gained only 16 yards on three punt returns.
The haters who doubted the Packers before can come out of the closet now. They’re Super Bowl bound and will play the Pittsburgh Steelers, Feb. 6.