Raji's Hands Don't Have Freezer Burn

The big nose tackle made the play of the game with his fourth-quarter interception and touchdown in Sunday's NFC Championship Game victory over Chicago.

A week after lining up as a 337-pound goal line blocking back on a touchdown and dubbing himself ‘The Freezer,' Green Bay Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji helped ice an NFC championship for his team and a spot in Super Bowl XLV with an 18-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Sometimes the best offense is a good defense. Sunday at Chicago, it was a good defensive tackle. A very good one.

With Green Bay maintaining a white-knuckle grip on a 14-7 lead with just over 6 minutes remaining, Bears third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie dropped back on third-and-5 from his 15-yard line looking to keep the drive and his team's postseason hopes alive.

Green Bay had the outside routes locked down, so Hanie -- in the game after starter Jay Cutler hurt his knee and backup Todd Collins simply hurt his team's chances to win -- looked for his checkdown option, running back Matt Forte. What he didn't know was that Raji was eyeing up Forte, too.

"It depends on the coverage, if we're in a man coverage, I have a man," Raji said. "If we're in a zone coverage like that play, if the running back goes to the flat, then I'm looking for somebody coming through. But if the running back is coming to me, I'm going to get him."

Oh, he got him.

Raji more or less jumped the route like any good cornerback would, and Hanie never saw him. And once he got his hands on the ball, Raji was off to the end zone – ball held precariously out in front of him but breaking the goal line before Hanie could swat it away. Those were the final points scored in the Packers' 21-14 win.

Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy will undoubtedly have a "ball security" conversation with his nose tackle sometime before the team travels to Dallas for their matchup with AFC-champion Pittsburgh. Immediately following the game, however, McCarthy had nothing but praise.

"We've been using him on goal line, so I guess now we have to throw him the ball since he's shown he can catch and score," McCarthy said. "He is a special athlete. He has a unique body type, and the quickness that he has… his instincts, too. That was a huge play of the game for us, and could definitely be classified as a game-winner. He is having a tremendous year. He is having a Pro Bowl-type year. The number of reps and snaps he's played this year compared to last year, the productivity he's given us throughout the year – he is playing big for us."

Drafted No. 9 overall in 2009 out of Boston College, Raji has evolved into one of the game's top nose tackles this season, notching 66 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hits and 12 pressures for the Packers' fifth-ranked defense. He was a workhorse, logging 45 snaps in the wild card win at Philadelphia, and had a sack of Atlanta 's Matt Ryan in Green Bay 's divisional upset of the No. 1 seed. But those were just the opening acts for Sunday's performance against the Bears.

Named a Pro Bowl alternate, Raji said his hands-on-swiveling-hips touchdown dance wasn't a hula dance or done in response to any perceived snub from that starting roster – not that he'd be heading to Hawaii, anyway. He's got better places to go.

"Whoever dreams you're going to get a touchdown as a nose tackle?" said the Super Bowl-bound Raji. "It just came to my head and that was that.

"Man, you know, it's just like football, a reaction. That's just what happens in the moment."

For Hanie, it was a moment he'd like to have back.

"I just didn't see him," Hanie said. "Matt (Forte) came into that window and that's where we were designed to go with the read and it's one of those ‘oops' type of things where you don't see a guy and he just pops at the last second."

Hanie would have one more "oops" when he got picked off by nickel back Sam Shields with 37 seconds remaining on an in-breaking route intended for Johnny Knox, effectively ending the game.

But on a day when Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the offense sputtered, Raji gave Green Bay six of the biggest points it's had all season. And because of that, Raji has an even cooler title than "The Freezer" – call him NFC champion.

"It probably won't sink in until about maybe tomorrow when I'm sitting home and doing nothing, but right now I'm just living the dream, it's an unbelievable feeling."


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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at karoer@msn.com.


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