Jan. 23, 2011: Defense dominates in historic NFC Championship vs. Bears

Tough, resilient Packers earn trip to Super Bowl XLV

Gary D’Amato
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Packers cornerback Charles Woodson holds up an NFC Championship cap after Green Bay beat the Chicago Bears, on Jan. 23, 2011.

Chicago — Never mind that "team of destiny" stuff. Never mind fate and karma.

That's the romantic, pie-in-the-sky way to explain how the Green Bay Packers got to Super Bowl XLV.

It would be a disservice to the Packers to focus on the ethereal when the nuts and bolts are staring us right in the face.

The Packers beat the Chicago Bears, 21-14, in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday because they blocked and tackled. They won three consecutive playoff games on the road because they prepared and executed.

They became the first sixth-seeded NFC team to reach the Super Bowl - knocking off the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seeds along the way - because they had superb players on both sides of the ball and were well-coached.

Destiny is for poets and dreamers. The Packers are going to Dallas because they're tough. They're resilient. They're confident. They are representing the NFC and Green Bay and all of Wisconsin because they are a very good team.

On Feb. 6, we'll find out if they're the best team in the NFL. Standing in their way is another proud franchise, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who beat the New York Jets, 24-19, in the AFC Championship Game.

"We know exactly what we've got to do," said receiver Donald Driver, the 12-year veteran who is going to his first Super Bowl. "We've got four more quarters to put that ring on our finger, and we're ready to do it."

Green Bay Packers cornerback Tramon Williams (38) and wide receiver Donald Driver celebrate an interception that sealed the victory over the Bears in the NFC Championship Game.

The NFC title game, played on a sunny, 20-degree day at historic Soldier Field, lived up to the massive amount of hype that preceded it. The Packers and Bears, whose rivalry dates to the dawn of professional football, went at each other with a ferocity befitting the occasion.

The Packers dominated in building a 14-0 halftime lead, but the Bears fought back - did anyone doubt they would? - and the outcome was in doubt until the final minute.

"We felt like we had them on the ropes there for a while," said Packers coach Mike McCarthy. "We just couldn't get the game to a three-score game. I think that says a lot about them as a football team. But it also says a lot about us as a team.

"Defense. Special teams. People making plays down the stretch. It was the typical Green Bay-Chicago game, with everything on the line."

Only when rookie free-agent cornerback Sam Shields intercepted third-string Bears quarterback Caleb Hanie with less than 45 seconds left could the Packers and their far-flung fans finally let out a collective sigh of relief.

In a sweet bit of irony, Green Bay claimed the Halas Trophy awarded to the NFC champions and named after Bears patriarch George "Papa Bear" Halas.

"I'm numb," said McCarthy, the fifth-year coach who called the victory the highlight of his professional career. "It's a great feeling."

No team seeded sixth in the NFC had made it to the Super Bowl since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format in 1990. The Steelers did it in the AFC in 2005.

The Packers (13-6) improved their all-time postseason record to 28-16 and will be trying to win their 13th NFL title. They won Super Bowls I, II and XXXI and lost Super Bowl XXXII.

Green Bay Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji scores a touchdown on a interception in the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 23, 2011. The victory put the Packers in Super Bowl XLV.

"As we stated, we have a goal of playing 16 quarters (in the playoffs) and we've completed 12," McCarthy said.

At several points earlier in the season, a Super Bowl including the Green Bay Packers seemed like a pipe dream.

Running back Ryan Grant was lost for the year in the season opener and 14 other players would join him on injured reserve. The Packers lost three of their first six games by three points each. And they were 8-6 after a loss at New England on Dec. 19.

They had to beat the New York Giants and the Bears in their final two regular-season games just to qualify for the playoffs - and they did that only by edging Tampa Bay in a tiebreaker for the No. 6 seed.

Then they went on the road and beat Michael Vick and the Philadelphia Eagles, 21-16, and crushed No. 1-seeded Atlanta, 48-21, to reach the NFC title game.

"I just had this feeling we were going to pull it off and I think it's the feeling we've had since the Giants game," said safety Charlie Peprah. "Just the confidence that no matter what happens, we're going to win.

"Not cocky. Not overconfident. It's just a confidence that we're going to do whatever it takes to win. No matter how bad it looks or no matter how many times the momentum shifts, we're going to come out on top."

Guard Josh Sitton said McCarthy was consistent in his message through all the bad breaks and tough losses. He never let the players feel sorry for themselves and never used injuries as an excuse.

"Those (doubts) start to creep into your head," Sitton said. "I think coach McCarthy has done a great job all year of laying down what the goals were. The goals were always ahead of us. He's really preached that we've got a lot of talent and we can still make a run at this. And he was right."

Said Peprah, "As long as there was a chance, we kept hope alive."

After the game, general manager Ted Thompson surveyed a jubilant locker room and answered reporters' questions in his low-key style.

It was Thompson who drafted Aaron Rodgers and found Shields and took a chance on James Starks, the rookie running back who missed his senior year at Buffalo with a shoulder injury. Starks rushed for 74 yards on 22 hard-fought carries Sunday.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers celebrates   the NFC Championship Game victory over the Bears on Jan. 23, 2011, at Soldier Field.

"Just to be able to play in this next game is hard to do," Thompson said. "We're humbled. To do what we did - win the last two games in the regular season and then win three road games against the 1, 2 and 3 seeds - it's a credit to this group of men we have playing for the Packers."

In victory, the Packers took some sting out of the memory of the 2007 NFC Championship Game, a loss in overtime to the Giants at Lambeau Field. And they rendered moot their six regular-season defeats, none by more than four points.

"None of them matter now," said defensive end Cullen Jenkins.

Only one game matters now. But there will be plenty of time to look ahead to the Steelers. This was a night for back-slapping, for donning "NFC champions" hats and T-shirts in the locker room, for smiles and laughs all around.

How were the players going to celebrate?

"I don't know," Starks said with a wide grin. "I guess I'm going to find out."

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