Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers raises his arms as he celebrates a touchdown against the Chicago Bears during the second quarter of the NFC championship game at Soldier Field in Chicago on Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
Cornerback Charles Woodson: "NFC champs. It's been a tough road, but we just persevered through a lot to get to this point. That part about it feels real good."
Wide receiver Donald Driver: "It's been a long road, but we're here now so I'm excited. I'm going to go home and celebrate with my wife and kids and enjoy the moment."
Defensive end Ryan Pickett: "Coach (Mike) McCarthy told us (Saturday) night we already won this game because of how we prepared this week, so just go out and be ourselves. That's what we did."
GM Ted Thompson: "We'll have plenty of time (to reflect) after this season. The season's not over yet."
Coach Lovie Smith's summary of the game: "Came up a little short today. When you get down 14-0, that's tough, 14-0 and you lose your starting quarterback (to an injury). But our guys continued to fight, giving ourselves the chance to win the game at the end. Again, going back to (the Packers) offensively, too many big pass plays on their part early on. When we had the ball offensively, we weren't able to get it on third down, it really hurt us. But again, we got it going."
Smith on winning the coin flip and deferring, which meant the Packers got the ball first: "We wanted out defense to play, kind of simple as that. I think it's tough on an opposing offense to come in and get the crowd into it right away. So we felt like we could get a stop right away. As much as anything we wanted the ball to start the second half, which we were able to do."
Tight end Greg Olsen on third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie, who led two Bears touchdown drives: "He did a great job. It's a hard situation for anybody to come in, whether you're a vet or whether you're a young guy. For him to come in with that poise, I think that first series he got us down for a touchdown. Maybe it was the second series he was in, he had a completion to Johnny (Knox) and we scored the next play."
Linebacker Brian Urlacher on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers: "He's a great quarterback, there's no doubt about that. He knows where to go with the football. I think we had two takeaways again. I know what he is, he does a great job for them. Actually, they ran the ball better than they have in the past. They had a couple of long runs there that gassed us a little bit, but they are a good offense."
CHICAGO – The Green Bay Packers, battered early in the season but confident and peaking late, are on their way back to the Super Bowl and feeling like the best team in the NFL.
From the start of a clear, cold Sunday at Chicago’s Soldier Field, the Packers showed why they were 3 ½-point favorites coming in the NFC championship game even though they were seeded lower than the Bears and playing on the road.
And when they’d finally survived the Bears’ shocking rally behind a third-string quarterback, the Packers had earned their 21-14 win and chance to join the pantheon of title teams from the NFL’s smallest city, which has produced 12 NFL champions, including three since the Super Bowl era began in the 1966 season.
All that stands between coach Mike McCarthy’s team and the return of the Lombardi Trophy to the city where that legendary namesake made his name is the Pittsburgh Steelers, who defeated the New York Jets Sunday night to set up the showdown between two of the NFL’s most venerable teams.
“Now we have the opportunity to achieve greatness, and that is winning the Super Bowl down in Dallas,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Bring the Lombardi Trophy back home.”
The Packers celebrated their third NFC title since the NFL merger in 1970 in the cramped visitor’s locker room at Soldier Field, hoisting the Halas Trophy, named after the Bears’ legendary former owner and coach, George Halas.
For 24 of these same Packers players, it was a euphoric contrast to three years ago, when they were in the Bears’ position – sitting in the home team’s locker room at Lambeau Field, loser of the conference championship in an upset loss to the New York Giants.
This time, the Packers move on as a more mature team, and also one with more talent added to the roster the last two seasons by General Manager Ted Thompson.
“I remember three years ago sitting in my locker with my pads on just having a bitter, sick feeling,” Packers receiver Greg Jennings said. “So I can sympathize with those guys, what they’re going through in that locker room. But at the same time I’m with my family and we’re excited about our opportunity.”
Defensive end Ryan Pickett said: “It’s easy to come back to Earth (after this), this team wants a Super Bowl ring. This is all nice and fun, but we have to bring the Lombardi Trophy back home.”
The Packers moved on to the Super Bowl mostly on the back of a defense that’s become one of the league’s best and that in the last 12 games, playoffs included, has allowed an average of only 10.4 points a game.
Chicago finished with 301 yards in total offense Sunday but had basically nothing going for the first three quarters, in which it was shut out.
Starting quarterback Jay Cutler's passer rating of 31.8 points reflected the Bears’ inability to solve defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ scheme.
After Cutler left the game after the first series of the second half because of a knee injury, the Bears appeared to have no chance with overmatched backup Todd Collins at the helm for two inept possessions.
But the Bears’ plucky defense and third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie’s shocking ability to engineer two touchdown drives in five possessions in the fourth quarter got coach Lovie Smith’s team back in it.
On the other side, this was far from a memorable performance by Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (55.4 passer rating, 244 yards passing but two interceptions).
However, he made one of the key plays of the game after throwing a potentially catastrophic interception right into the chest of linebacker Brian Urlacher in the red zone with a chance to put the Packers up 21 points. The 258-pound Urlacher had a chance to turn the interception into a game-changing touchdown, but Rodgers prevented that by tripping him up at the Bears’ 45. Chicago couldn’t convert the turnover into points, so the Packers’ two-touchdown lead held.
“I don’t get paid to tackle, but that was probably one of my better plays of the day,” Rodgers said.
The Packers shut down the Bears with a new defensive look for their old foe, a wrinkle to their 3-4 base scheme with cornerback Charles Woodson moving to safety in place of Charlie Peprah, and nickel cornerback Sam Shields moving into the starting lineup.
Capers used it often on early downs, and it helped stymie the Bears’ running game most of the day. Halfback Matt Forte rushed for 70 yards and a 4.1-yard average, decent numbers, but a huge contrast to his 91 yards and 6.1-yard average three weeks ago in the regular-season finale between these two teams.
The rookie Shields had the game of his young career with two interceptions.
The first was a leaping catch at the Packers’ 3-yard line late in the first half when Cutler took a deep shot on him with one of his blazing wideouts, Johnny Knox. The other was the game-clinching pick on fourth-and-5 at the Packers’ 12 that snuffed out Hanie’s last-ditch chance to tie the game in the last minute.
On the day, Bears speed receivers Knox and Devin Hester combined for only two catches for 56 yards. Tight end Greg Olsen, who’s basically a big wideout, had only three catches for 30 yards.
“If there’s an outstanding tight end, we want to match Woodson on that tight end,” Capers said. “Really, what you’ve got is our nickel defensive backs in terms of coverage with a 3-4 front (to stop the run), you saw (nose tackle) Howard Green in there on first downs a lot. We wanted to get our big guys in there to play that run so they couldn’t get their run game going.”
The Packers also owe a good share of the win to punter Tim Masthay and the punt cover team. Masthay had to hit eight punts, but the Packers held the Bears’ best offensive weapon, Hester, to a 5.3 yards on three returns, making him a non-factor in the game.
The Packers dominated more than the score suggests and held Chicago scoreless for three quarters. But they still had to survive the late rally by the gritty Bears.
“Really, with the way our season went, the trials and tribulations that we encountered, to me, that was how we were shaped,” McCarthy said. “I think it’s made us a better football team. It’s challenged our character. I think we’re really grown through it. Our players truly believe that we will be successful in Dallas, just like they truly believed that we were going to be successful here today.”