January 23, 2011 – Soldier Field, Chicago, Illinois
In some corner of their minds, the Green Bay players probably knew it would come down to this. Through everything they had dealt with–the inconsistency, the injuries and the uncertainty–the Packers held firm to the belief that they were good enough to play for the NFC Championship.
They had won 4 straight games they were required to win, including the last 2 on the road against teams geared to stop them.
They were on one of the surreal magic rides they had seen other teams latch onto & while they didn’t quite understand it, they had no intention of getting off anytime soon. This was epic, once-in-a-career stuff.
Now it was laid out for them: The Packers would travel back to Chicago to take on the Bears. A win meant a trip to the Super Bowl. A loss and all that hard work meant nothing.
The hype during the week leading up to the game was unprecedented for the NFL’s oldest and sometimes most-heated rivalry. Green Bay & Chicago had not met in a playoff game since 1941. This was the biggest Packers-Bears game of all-time!
The Packers wasted no time in trying to quiet the boisterous–and cold–Soldier Field crowd, picking up right where they left off from Atlanta, moving the ball at will during the games first drive. Two long completions to Greg Jennings set up an Aaron Rodgers 1-yard TD run for a quick 7-0 lead.
At the start of the 2nd quarter, the Packers rolled again, moving 44 yards on 5 plays & scoring on a James Starks lunge into the end zone.
It could have–and should have–been worse for the Bears later in the quarter, but Donald Driver let a Rodgers pass slip through his hands, bounce off his foot and up into the waiting arms of Lance Briggs for an interception. The Bears had done nothing on offense, the Packers had dominated & yet Green Bay led just 14-0 at halftime.
What the Packers–and apparently a few Bears–didn’t know was that Jay Cutler had injured his left knee while being sacked in the 2nd quarter. He tried to play in the first series of the 3rd quarter but could not. He took a seat & backup Todd Collins took over.
The Packers threatened to take what could have been an insurmountable lead early in the 3rd quarter. However, an ill-advised Rodgers pass near the Bears’ goal line was intercepted by linebacker Brian Urlacher. He would have taken it back for a touchdown, too, if not for Rodgers heads-up tackle saving the day.
“I don’t get paid to make tackles but that was probably one of my best plays of the day,” Rodgers said with a smile.
Yet the Bears could do nothing with the gift. Two series, two failures and Bears head coach Lovie Smith had seen enough of Collins. He inserted his #3 quarterback, the unknown Caleb Hanie and something special happened.
Hanie directed the Bears on an 8-play, 67-yard drive that ended with a Chester Taylor touchdown run with 12 minutes left to play in the 4th quarter. The momentum had shifted Chicago’s way. Packers 14 Bears 7.
Then with just over 6 minutes to play, Hanie, who played calmly and with purpose, made a critical mistake vs. a defensive play I’m certain he doesn’t practice against on the scout team. Hanie threw an interception to B.J. Raji who had dropped into coverage for probably the first time all season. Raji rumbled 18 yards for a touchdown barely crossing the goal line in time before Hanie knocked the ball from his hands. Raji put on a XXXL championship belt. Packers 21, Bears 7 and the “dagger” as Wayne Larivee would call.
Game over, right? Not so fast. Hanie came right back & hit Earl Bennett on a 35-yard score with Nick Collins taking a bad angle & the entire defense playing lackadaisical. It was a 1 touchdown game again with plenty of time left to play.
When Green Bay failed to move the ball on its next possession, Hanie directed yet another impressive drive moving the Bears from their own 29 to the Packers 29 with less than a minute to play. Before Hanie could complete the miracle comeback, rookie Sam Shields saved the day with his 2nd interception of the game.
Whew!! It was over. The Packers had won the most important game in the storied rivalry & were headed to Super Bowl XLV in Dallas Texas.
“I’m at a loss for words,” said Rodgers, who threw for 244 yards & ran for another 39.
When it mattered most, the Packers defense made the play it needed to make. Green Bay was back in the Super Bowl for the first time since 1998. Now everyone saw why the Bears tried desperately to keep the Packers out of the playoffs on the final week of the regular season.
“We just kept playing defense the way we know how to play it,” said linebacker Clay Matthews.
The opponent? The Packers didn’t know at that stage but they didn’t care either. They had gone on the road and won 3 playoff games, knocking off the #1, #2 and #3 seeds in the conference along the way.
President Obama had stated if the Bears would make it to the Super Bowl, he would attend in Dallas Texas. Charles Woodsons post-game speech was a passionate one. “If the President doesn’t want to see us play in the Super Bowl…Then we’ll go see him!! Gimme a White House on 3…1-2-3 WHITE HOUSE!! Charles obviously referring to the Super Bowl winning team is invited to the White House.
It had been an incredible season…and the best part was, it wasn’t over. On to Dallas!