CHICAGO – Aaron Rodgers(notes) had been in this position before, and he did not relish the potential for a sequel. Shivering on the sidelines in the final stages of a conference championship game, watching helplessly with his team's Super Bowl dreams fluttering in the balance – he'd been there three years ago as Brett Favre's(notes) anxious understudy, feeling almost sick to his stomach as the Green Bay Packers' season slipped away.
This time Rodgers, the Pack's unquestioned leader, had helped stake his team to a one-touchdown advantage over the rival Chicago Bears with 2:53 remaining in Sunday's NFC championship game at Soldier Field. With Bears counterpart Jay Cutler(notes) felled by a knee injury, an anonymous third-stringer named Caleb Hanie(notes) marched the home team down the frigid, soggy field as 62,377 fans screamed for him to complete an astonishing comeback.
Rodgers put his faith in the NFL's most underappreciated defense and tried his best to stay calm.
"I was confident we were going to stop them," Rodgers said later as he stood at his locker wearing a grey, oversized NFC Champions T-shirt. "It was tough to watch – but I had no doubt we'd get it done. We've got a championship defense. That's the biggest difference between this year's team and '07."
This time, unheralded rookie cornerback Sam Shields(notes) made a play that put the Packers back in the Super Bowl for the first time in 13 years, intercepting a Hanie pass at the Green Bay 12-yard-line with 37 seconds remaining to secure a 21-14 victory. After Rodgers closed out the game with the sweetest kneel-down of his six-year career, he and his teammates celebrated their third consecutive road victory of this postseason and turned their eyes to North Texas, where the Pack will battle the AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers on Feb. 6 in Super Bowl XLV.
Rodgers, a burgeoning star who is on the verge of becoming Steve Young to Favre's Joe Montana, will be awash in the national spotlight for the next two weeks. That's what happens to quarterbacks who lead their teams to the ultimate game, especially when escaping the massive shadow of a legend. The two men who hitched their professional fortunes to his success, general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy, will rightfully revel in Rodgers' emergence.
Yet all parties concerned understand it's not nearly that simple. So much has changed in the three years since the Packers hosted the 2007 NFC title game and, in Favre's last appearance for the franchise, suffered a 23-20 overtime defeat to the New York Giants. The game, played in sub-zero temperatures at Lambeau Field, turned on Favre's interception on the Pack's first possession of OT, creating a viewing experience that Rodgers would later describe as "miserable."
Rodgers now inflicts misery upon opponents with regularity – and he has plenty of company in green-and-gold. Unlike his first year as the Pack's starter in 2008, when Green Bay sputtered to a 6-10 record, or last season, when the quarterback's brilliant effort in his playoff debut ended in a 51-45 overtime defeat to the Arizona Cardinals, Rodgers is augmented by a fast, menacing defensive unit that is playing its best when it matters most.
On Sunday, the Packers shut out the Bears until 12:05 remained in the game, intercepted three passes and stopped Chicago on 12 of 13 third-down tries. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers was in a play-calling groove of stupefying dimensions, confusing Cutler and replacements Todd Collins(notes) and Hanie with an unpredictable mix of zone blitzes and disguised coverages.
Green Bay's highest-profile defenders – outside linebacker Clay Matthews(notes), cornerback Charles Woodson(notes) and safety Nick Collins(notes) – played key roles. Yet Shields (two interceptions, a sack and a forced fumble), middle linebacker Desmond Bishop(notes) (eight tackles, including one for loss, and numerous alignment tweaks at the line of scrimmage) and nose tackle B.J. Raji(notes) comprised the power trio that rocked hardest of all.
Years from now, this game will likely be remembered for two things: Cutler's ambiguous exit after the first series of the third quarter with a knee injury he'd apparently suffered late in the first half, a development that set off a storm of controversy in the Windy City and throughout the NFL, and Raji's fourth-quarter interception for touchdown on a defensive scheme that Capers had saved for a special occasion.
"It was the first time we've made the call this year," Capers said afterward.
Said Bishop: "It was a rare call. When they sent it in, I kind of went, 'Hmmmmmmmm.' "
The call, "Right Cat," came with the Packers up 14-7 with 6:12 remaining and the Bears facing a third-and-5 from their 15-yard-line. It called for Shields, the right cornerback, to blitz while Raji, the monstrous (6-foot-2, 337 pounds) nose tackle Thompson drafted in the first round two years ago to serve as the linchpin of Capers' 3-4 scheme, steps down into the A-gap (between guard and center) to try to draw a block, then suddenly pops back into coverage.
Raji, Capers estimated, had only been utilized in coverage about five times this season, which would explain Hanie's surprise as he flipped a short pass for halfback Matt Forte(notes) that ended up in the zone-traversing nose tackle's massive mitts. As Raji rumbled 18 yards for the score, he set the concept of ball security back several decades, holding the ball in his outstretched right hand as Hanie swooped across and took a swipe near the goal line.
"That was too close," Capers said. "We're going to have to talk about that."
Said Raji: "Yeah, a couple of guys told me about it afterward. It's one of those things you learn from."
It's tempting to conclude that the Packers were merely picking on an unpolished quarterback forced into an unenviable spot. But the truth is that Cutler was utterly ineffective before leaving the game, completing 6 of 14 passes for 80 yards, tossing up an interception to Shields, and reverting to some of the throwing-off-the-back-foot sloppiness that characterized his 2009 campaign, a highly disappointing first season in Chicago.
"We were frustrating him," Bishop said. "He couldn't really get a rhythm. That worked in our favor."
Rodgers, conversely, started out the game looking every bit as unstoppable as he had in the previous weekend's 48-21 thrashing of the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons. After the Bears won the coin toss and deferred, putting Chicago's defense on the field first, Rodgers (17-of-30, 244 yards; seven rushes, 39 yards) got things started with consecutive completions of 22 and 26 yards to wideout Greg Jennings(notes) and completed a seven-play, 84-yard scoring drive with a wicked play-action fake to halfback John Kuhn(notes) and a one-yard bootleg to the left pylon.
"They deferred, and we unleashed the beast early," Woodson said of Rodgers. "That was huge for our defense, too."
When rookie halfback James Starks(notes) (22 carries, 74 yards) bulled in from four yards out with 11:13 left in the second quarter, it looked like a Packers blowout was inevitable. Green Bay, however, kept missing out on chances to extend the lead: Rodgers took a third-down sack from All-Pro middle linebacker Brian Urlacher(notes), knocking the Pack out of field-goal range; Starks was stuffed by Pro Bowl outside linebacker Lance Briggs(notes) on third-and-1 from the Bears' 36, and McCarthy decided to punt; twice Rodgers threw interceptions in Chicago territory, one on a ball that bounced off wideout Donald Driver's(notes) foot and into Briggs' arms, the other straight to Urlacher on third-and-goal from the 6 on the Pack's first drive of the second half.
Had Rodgers not managed to trip up Urlacher at the Bears' 45, Chicago likely would've scored its first points and made the game interesting before the fourth quarter. The Bears finally got on the board with 12:02 remaining when Hanie led a drive that ended with Chester Taylor's(notes) one-yard touchdown run, and they closed to within 21-14 immediately after Raji's score when wideout Earl Bennett(notes) caught a sideline pass from Hanie and juked Woodson and Collins to complete a 35-yard touchdown reception with 4:43 to go.
Then the Packers went three-and-out, the Bears took over and Rodgers began to feel that familiar lurching in his stomach. Rationally, he had reason for optimism. The Packers had the NFL's No. 2 scoring defense during the regular season – the Steelers were No. 1 – and had demonstrated a resilience forged by unplanned lineup shuffles (a league-high 15 players went on injured reserve) and urgency fueled by unmet expectations (the trendy preseason Super Bowl pick had to close the season with victories over the Giants and Bears to sneak into the playoffs as the NFC's No. 6 seed).
Before taking the field for their final stand, the Packers' defenders told each other, "Defense wins championships" and prepared to seize the moment.
"We knew it was on the D, and we weren't worried," cornerback Tramon Williams(notes) said. "It was just another adverse situation. Go back and look it up – we've been good at that this year. So statistically, [the Bears] were playing into our hands."
In Texas, the ball will be in Rodgers' hands as he tries to join Favre and Bart Starr as quarterbacks who've hoisted the Lombardi Trophy while representing Titletown. As much as he'll be challenged by the Steelers, he can take solace in the fact that Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger(notes) will be similarly tested by a unit that treated Hanie and Cutler as dismissively as it previously had the Falcons' Matt Ryan(notes) and the Eagles' Michael Vick(notes).
"They're pretty good," Rodgers said of the Packers' defenders. "I mean, they're unbelievable."
As for Rodgers' belief that the Packers are a championship defense? They're one victory away from proving it, beyond a reasonable doubt.
THE HIGH FIVE …
• Lately I've been calling Roethlisberger the most underrated quarterback in football, a somewhat bizarre concept given that he has won two Super Bowls before his 29th birthday, and now has a shot at a third. Two weeks of hype will render this moot, but the bottom line is that in this fantasy-obsessed era, Big Ben's brilliance is lost upon some fans. As usual on Sunday, his play transcended the numbers (10-of-19, 133 yards) – yet his ability to keep plays alive is unparalleled, and his performance in the clutch, whether mounting comebacks or closing out games (as with his third-and-6 completion to rookie wideout Antonio Brown after sprinting hard to his right on Sunday), is up there with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. All I'd ask is that we try to go easy on the redemption angle and avoid equating success on the football field with Roethlisberger's seemingly sincere attempt to be a better person, a process that is still in its early stages.
• Roethlisberger's signature moment during his first championship drive – his game-saving tackle of the Colts' Nick Harper on a late fumble return in the Steelers' 2005 divisional-round upset of the Colts in Indy – was worth recalling after Rodgers' takedown of Urlacher, which occurred by the thinnest of margins. The quarterback was falling to his left as Urlacher cut back inside of him, falling forward after Rodgers' right hand grazed the linebacker's left knee. Remember pivotal plays like that one the next time you see a quarterback sulking toward the sidelines after an interception before the defender in question is even tackled. Yeah, I hate that, too.
• It's easy to make fun of Rex Ryan – heaven knows I'm not immune – but the Jets' inspired comeback against the Steelers after falling behind 24-0 late in the first half was a testament to their coach's audacious leadership style. Ryan has the guts to enunciate his championship aspirations and is refreshingly human when he falls short; when he angrily threw his headset to the Heinz Field turf after Brown made that game-clinching catch, it reminded me of John Madden losing it on the Raiders' sidelines in the mid-'70s. If I'm a fan, knowing that my coach cares that much is a comforting feeling. And I believe Ryan spoke from the heart after the game when he told reporters, "We're gonna chase that Super Bowl. We're gonna chase it till we get it …and then we'll chase it after that again."
• Before the game, shortly after I was introduced to the Rev. Jesse Jackson (clad in an Urlacher jersey) by esteemed St. Louis Post Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell, I was hanging out in the hallway outside the press box with two other giants of the sports reporting industry, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander and CBS broadcaster Lesley Visser. As the conversation concluded Visser, a Boston College alum, blurted out, "By the way, you know who's going to be the star of this game? B.J. Raji. It's a B.C. thing." Um, yeah … or a psychic thing. Speaking of spot-on predictions, my old SI colleague Peter King picked the Packers and Steelers to meet in the Super Bowl – before the season. And for what it's worth, I predict that this Tuesday's Mary Carillo-reported segment on HBO's Real Sports will be immensely entertaining.
• Now that the Packers have navigated their rigorous road to the Super Bowl, let the record state that the Eagles may well have been the second-best team in the NFC this season. Remember that Michael Vick was a mere 27 yards from leading Philly to victory over the Pack in that first-round game at Lincoln Financial Field, and I absolutely expect the Eagles to contend in 2011 (to the extent that there's football next season as a labor showdown looms). In the meantime, look for Vick to tear it up in next Sunday's Pro Bowl in Hawaii, just because.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. That this certified California born-and-raised weather wimp can now discern a difference between 15-degree and five-degree temperatures – and, speaking of the former while walking on Michigan Avenue Saturday, actually uttered the phrase, "This isn't that bad."
2. The entertainment value provided by the radio reporters seated near me in the Soldier Field press box whose in-game telephone updates bordered on the farcical. While I realize that my press-box experience may not be interesting to many of you, and I'll spare you the complaints about the ill-conceived design and positioning of the media seating areas at the recently reconstructed stadium (and don't get me started on the cramped visitors' locker-room design), some things are simply too precious not to share. For example, the first breathless report by a radio guy in the front row declaring that Rodgers had "cut through the Bears' defense like a hot knife through butter" was highly illuminating. I also enjoyed the repeated liberties taken by another radio reporter with the word insurmountable, as in, "Well, maybe that 14-0 lead wasn't so insurmountable after all" – try decoding the logic in that statement – or (after Raji's interception for touchdown) "and I can safely say that it's probably insurmountable at this point," a declaration which set the stage for the Bears to close to within seven points a mere 71 seconds later. All of that, however, paled in comparison to another nearby reporter's revelation to his lucky listeners during a pivotal third-quarter play that, in the wake of Cutler's injury, there were comments on the Internet and Twitter from frustrated fans "calling him a word that rhymes with 'wussy.' " And that loudly broadcast statement, oddly enough, made me want to tell him to do something that rhymes with "Putt the Buck Cup."
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
I’m impressed by what Lovie Smith did with this year’s Bears, a team whose credentials most people doubted going into the 2010 season, and I agree with veterans like Urlacher and center Olin Kreutz that the franchise should work to sign him to a contract extension (he has one year remaining on his current deal). Sunday, however, was not his finest hour. When a team blessed with uncanny injury luck all season long loses its starting quarterback in a conference title game, conditions for victory are hardly optimal. But what I can’t understand is, given how overmatched, statuesque and atrocious veteran backup Todd Collins (0-for-4, including a near interception) looked in his two series of action in the third quarter – compared to Hanie’s promising performance – how could Smith and offensive coordinator Mike Martz possibly have gone an entire season with that pecking order? I mean, it was painfully clear to everyone in the stadium that Hanie is the Bears’ second-best quarterback, yet Smith, who sees these guys every day in practice, didn’t get that until now? Perhaps Collins’ performance in his six quarters of action in October games against the Giants and Panthers – 10 completions in 27 attempts for 68 yards; no touchdowns, five interceptions – might have provided a clue? Is it really that complicated? Am I crazy? And, if not, why can’t I stop asking these questions? Can’t anyone do something?
TEXT/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"I called it!!"
– Direct message (on Twitter) Sunday night from injured Packers middle linebacker Nick Barnett, referring to his publicly stated "Super Bowl Or Die" mantra heading into the 2010 season.
"Too much to overcome bro"
– Text Sunday night from injured Jets tackle Damien Woody.
"Dude if they win that sucks for al harris"
– Text Sunday afternoon from my 14-year-old daughter, nobly thinking of her onetime favorite Packers player – who was released by the team in November – while inexplicably addressing me as something other than "Dad."