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Packers beat Bears to advance to Super Bowl

Aaron Rodgers ran for a score and made a TD-saving tackle in leading the Green Bay Packers into the Super Bowl with a bone-jarring 21-14 victory Sunday over Chicago.

Packers 21- Bears 14
Soldier Field, Chicago, IL
The Green Bay Packers dominated the stat sheet for three quarters but had to sweat out punching their Super Bowl XLV ticket on Sunday afternoon, defeating the Chicago Bears 21-14 at Soldier Field in the NFC Championship Game. In the 182nd installment of football’s oldest, most savage rivalry, Green Bay held a 14-0 halftime lead as Aaron Rogers and James Starks scored rushing TDs for the Packers. The Bears, down to their third-string quarterback after Jay Cutler injured his left knee and Todd Collins proved ineffective, nearly completed a comeback with Caleb Hanie at the helm and Rogers throwing a pair of interceptions.

Chester Taylor had one-yard TD run to make it 14-7 Packers. Hanie, a former undrafted free agent, gave seven points back on a pick that was returned for a touchdown by Green Bay defensive tackle B.J. Raji. However, Hanie recovered to hook up with Earl Bennett on a touchdown to pull the Bears within 21-14. The comeback wasn’t to be, though, as Hanie’s second interception ended Chicago’s surge on a 4th-and-5 with less than a minute remaining in the game. The Packers claimed the George Halas trophy, named after the legendary Bears coach, and now march on to football’s biggest stage for the first time since 1998.

First Half

In the first playoff contest between Green Bay and Chicago since Curly Lambeau and George Halas matched wits at Wrigley Field on December 14, 1941, the Packers drew first blood. Quarterback Aaron Rogers, coming off a clinical 31-for-36 performance against top-seeded Atlanta, drove the Packers down the field. Starting at his own 16 yard line, Rogers went a perfect four-for-four for 76 yards, including two twenty yard-plus passes to Greg Jennings and one to Jordy Nelson. At the one yard line, Rogers faked to John Kuhn, rolled to his left and scampered into the end zone, colliding with Bears safety Danieal Manning and extending the ball over the pylon for the score. Mason Crosby converted the PAT to make it 7-0 Packers.

The Bears couldn’t answer right back. During the Bears’ opening drive, quarterback Jay Cutler threw a short pass to running back Matt Forte, who broke up field for 24 yards. However, on 3rd-and-7, Cutler overthrew a wide open Devin Hester. Hester had turned around third-string-safety-turned starter, Charlie Peprah, but the Packers escaped danger when Cutler put too much oomph on his pass. Chicago’s second drive didn’t go much better. After a false start penalty set the Bears back, Forte gained 9 yards on two carries and the Packers’ D clamped down on 3rd-and-6, with Cullen Jenkins and Clay Matthews combining to topple Cutler.

Rogers looked primed to strike again, finding Jennings for 21 yards on first down to put the Packers at Chicago’s 30 yard line. The Bears stamped out the drive, though, stuffing running back James Starks on the next two plays and forcing Green Bay to punt after Brian Urlacher sacked Rogers on 3rd-and-7. Rather than attempting a 53 yard field goal in punishing conditions, the Packers’ Tim Masthay pinned Chicago at their own three yard line. Playing it safe deep in their own territory, the Bears didn’t get much yardage on a pair of Forte runs and punted.

Again getting excellent field position after return man Tramon Williams nearly lost the ball but recovered his own fumble, the Packers started at Chicago’s 44 yard line. Rogers and Starks made short work of the short field, as Rogers completed passes to Brandon Jackson and Nelson and Starks, a 2010 sixth rounder out of Buffalo, rumbled for 4 yards for his first ever NFL touchdown. Crosby’s second PAT extended the visitors’ advantage to 14-0.

After two three-and-outs, Cutler found Johnny Knox for 24 yards to get into Packers territory at the 42. Running back Chester Taylor hauled in a 12 yard pass to push the Bears deeper into Green Bay’s real estate, but 1st-and-10 quickly turned into 4th-and-11, with the costliest mistake being a holding penalty on Taylor. The Beats chose to punt instead of trying a 49 yard field goal. Brad Maynard’s punt netted just 11 yards as it rolled into the end zone.

Inside the two minute mark in the first half, Chicago caught a break on a rare Rogers misfire. At the Chicago 41, Rogers targeted Donald Driver but his throw was low, bouncing off of Driver’s foot and into the hands of Bears linebacker Lance Briggs. Starting at his own 41, Cutler passed to Forte for 17 yards. He tossed a bomb to Knox downfield on the next play, but Green Bay cornerback Sam Shields stayed stride-for-stride with Chicago’s speedster, picking the ball off. Shields’ INT was upheld after a booth review, and the Pack were content to take a knee and head into halftime with a two TD lead.

The Packers thoroughly dominated the Bears in the first half, converting 17 first downs to Chicago’s 6, compiling 252 total net yards to the Bears’ 103 and holding a 17:23 to 12:37 time of possession advantage over the Monsters of the Midway. The crowd sent the teams into the locker room with a chorus of boos.

Second Half
On a kickoff return to start the second half, Hester found little running room toward the middle of the field, cut back toward the left sideline and managed to pick up 24 yards on a play where most would have been brought down for no gain. Starting at their own 40, the Bears again were denied. On 3rd-and-4 after a few Forte runs, Cutler couldn’t find his running back and the team was forced to punt. Cutler, bothered by a left knee injury, was checked by trainers on the sideline as backup Todd Collins started to get loose.

The Packers, meanwhile, went for the jugular, ripping through a Bears defense that allowed the fourth fewest points in the NFL during the regular season. Rogers, starting at his own 17, completed passes of 21 yards and 20 yards to Nelson and Jennings, respectively. On 3rd-and-1 later in the drive, Chicago cornerback Tim Jennings got called for a costly pass interference play that pushed the Packers to the Bears’ eight yard line. After a two yard run by Starks and an incomplete pass intended for Driver, Rogers was picked while targeting Driver again. Urlacher stepped in front and romped down the sideline, just getting tripped up on a touchdown-saving tackle by a diving Rogers after a 39 yard return.

With Cutler ailing, Collins entered the game for the Bears. After two incomplete passes and a false start penalty made it 3rd-and-15, Collins was nearly intercepted by Nick Collins on a pass intended by Earl Bennett. Bears head coach Lovie Smith challenged the pick, however, and a review overturned the INT.

Collins, in his 16th NFL season but seeing his first game action since Week 5, nearly gift-wrapped another ball to the Packers on the Bears’ next drive. Luckily for the home team, Tramon Williams’ good read on a 3rd-and-2 pass was ruled to have hit the turf.

Tramon Williams then made an ill-advised decision to pick up Maynard’s punt, getting clobbered by Bears special teamers and coughing the ball up. Brett Swain recovered for the Packers, though. Chicago’s D held tough, forcing Green Bay to a three-and-out. Masthay got off a booming 65 yard punt, that dribbled to the Bears’ 11, though Bennett picked it up and managed to get 22 yards on the return.

With Cutler injured and Collins ice cold, third-string QB Caleb Hanie, a third-year undrafted free agent with eight career completions, took the reins for the Bears. Starting on their own 33 yard line, Forte moved the chains for Chicago twice on a run and a short pass. Hanie then found Knox streaking down the sideline and tossed a 32 yard completion, with Nick Collins knocking the receiver out at the one yard line. A Taylor run to the right completed the Bears’ first successful drive of the game, and Robbie Gould knocked home the PAT to slice Green Bay’s lead in half, to 14-7.

The Bears nearly stunted their momentum on Green Bay’s next drive, as Julius Peppers got flagged for roughing the passer and Jennings got called for his second pass interference penalty. But Aaron Rogers couldn’t connect with Andrew Quarless on a 3rd-and-2 play on Chicago’s 43, with Rogers’ fastball zipping through the tightly-covered Quarless’ hands. Another unsuccessful third down conversion on the ensuing drive left the Bears 0-for-9 when needing to move the chains.

After a three-and-out by Green Bay and another gem of a punt by Masthay that put Chicago at the 10, Hanie led the Bears onto the field with 7:22 left to play. On 3rd-and-5, all 337 pounds of Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji dropped into coverage on a zone blitz. Raji snagged a pass intended for Forte and plodded down the right sideline for a touchdown. The self-dubbed “Freezer,” so called in homage to William “The Refrigerator” Perry and for Raji’s recent blocking on Packers goal line tries, got his groove on and Crosby kicked the extra point to make it 21-7.

On a do-or-die drive, the Bears’ moribund offense came up huge. Starting at his own 40, Hanie complete three consecutive passes to Greg Olsen, Bennett and Forte to put Chicago at Green Bay’s 35. Bennett then found a soft spot in the Packers’ D between Charles Woodson and Collins, hauling in a Hanie pass and zooming to the end zone for a quick score. Gould’s PAT made it 21-14.

Two Starks rushes and one attempted scramble by Rogers resulted in 4th-and-11 for the Packers, though Masthay rocketed another punt (this one 58 yards) that was returned for 11 yards by Hester.

Hanie got 10 yards on a 3rd-and-9 pass to Olsen. On another 3rd-and-9 a few plays later, a pass to Forte picked up eight. Taylor kept the Bears’ hopes alive, however, getting four yards on the ensuing 4th-and-1. Hanie moved Chicago down the field, connecting with Forte and Olsen to put Chicago at the Green Bay 27. After a Bears timeout and a Bennett run that lost two yards, Hanie targeted Knox but was picked off by Shields, who raced 32 yards upfield for his second INT and was brought down by J’Marcus Webb. Rogers took a knee, and the countdown to Super Bowl XLV for the Packers began.

Packers Pro Bowl left tackle Chad Clifton suffered a stinger on the opening drive of the game and did not return. Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler exited the game in the third quarter with a left knee injury and also sat out the rest of the game.

On the ground: Neither team had a huge game on the ground. Matt Forte gained 70 yards on 17 carries for the Bears, an average of 4.1 per attempt. For the Packers, Starks had 3.4 yards per carry, posting a 74 yard performance on 22 tries. Rogers showed off his mobility on a one yard TD run and another 25 yard dash, finishing with 39 yards on seven carries.

Through the air: Limping and getting little time to set his feet, Cutler completed just 6 of 14 pass attempts for 80 yards and threw a pick before exiting the game for good in the second half. Collins had a disastrous 0-for-4 showing, nearly throwing two INTs before he was pulled. Hanie tossed a TD to Bennett and went 13-of-20 for 153 yards behind center, but he did throw two interceptions as well.

Chicago held Rogers without a TD pass, as the previously red-hot QB completed 17-of-30 for 244 yards and 2 INTs.

Forte was the Bears’ go-to guy in the passing game, hauling in 10 receptions for 90 yards. Knox had two catches for 56 yards, and Bennett scored a TD while grabbing three passes for 45 yards. Olsen was relatively quiet, with 30 yards on three receptions.

Jennings starred for the Packers, with eight receptions for 130 yards. Nelson was the second most productive option, getting 67 yards on four catches.

Chicago’s defense recovered from a turbulent start, limiting Green Bay to 104 second half yards after getting scorched for 252 in the first half. The Packers had the opposite pattern, clamping down in the first half (103 yards) but surrendering 198 in the second.

Urlacher had a huge game for the Bears, recording nine tackles while also notching a sack and an interception. Brigg also had an INT for Chicago. Shields had two picks for Green Bay and Raji added another for the NFC champs.

The Packers managed to contain Hester, who had 24 yards on one kick return and averaged just 5.3 yards on three punt returns. Bennett had a nice 22 yard return on a punt. Gould nailed both of his extra point opportunities for the Bears, and Maynard averaged 37.1 yards per punt.

Neither Starks nor Woodson did much on three kick returns for Green Bay, with Starks averaging 15 yards on two returns and Woodson getting 14 yards on his sole return. Williams was bottled up on punt returns, averaging 4.3 yards on three returns. Masthay made sure the Bears had a long field all day, averaging 41.8 yards per punt and trapping Chicago inside the 20 yard line five times.

Shields, an undrafted rookie who snatched two passes from Bears QBs, including the clincher with less than a minute to go in the game.

It’s on to Cowboys Stadium for the Packers, who will take on the winner of the Jets/Steelers game on February 6 in the world’s most watched televised event.

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