In two weeks, the Packers will be playing in suburban Dallas in hopes of bringing the Vince Lombardi Trophy back home for the first time since the 1996 season.
Thanks to yet another dominant effort by the defense – highlighted by an interception that B.J. Raji returned 18 yards for a touchdown and a fourth-and-5 interception by Sam Shields with Chicago nearing the red zone in the final minute -- the Packers won the George Halas Trophy on Halas' old stomping grounds, 21-14, on Sunday afternoon. Aaron Rodgers' hot start outweighed his two interceptions and the defense had its way with Jay Cutler and his backups for most of the game.
"We are proud of what we have accomplished, but once again, we are only three quarters of the way there," coach Mike McCarthy said. "We talk about 16 quarters – that is our motto and that is what we are sticking to. We have completed 12 quarters and we have 4 quarters left." The Packers, who were knocked out of the playoffs by the Cowboys in the 1993, 1994 and 1995 playoffs, advance to Arlington, Texas, by virtue of their fifth consecutive victory. The defense has allowed 64 points during that span as Green Bay became the NFC's first No. 6 seed to win three road games and reach the Super Bowl.
The Packers led 14-0 at halftime, and Cutler was behind center for the Bears' three-and-out possession to start the third quarter. Collins replaced him at the start of the next series – it was reported that Cutler had an injured knee that will require an MRI -- and Collins was replaced by third-stringer Caleb Hanie after two three-and-out series. With that, the Bears' only hope was a defensive touchdown or a punt return by Devin Hester. They almost got the defensive touchdown, with Brian Urlacher being tripped up near midfield by Rodgers after a goal-line interception. The Packers flirted with disaster a few times with Hester but survived.
Hanie did lead a 67-yard touchdown drive on his first series but the defense held firm as Rodgers and the offense couldn't deliver the knockout punch. After the touchdown, Hanie was pressured into incompletions by Raji and Shields on his next possession. On the next possession, Raji got his clinching pick-six after Shields blitzed off the edge again.
Cue the "Go Pack Go!" chants with 6 minutes to go.
Maybe too soon, though. Hanie hit Fred Bennett for a 35-yard touchdown as Nick Collins and Charles Woodson both thought the other was going to make the tackle. That made it 21-14 with 4:43 remaining.
The Packers' offense again went nowhere, and Hanie got the ball at the Bears' 29 with 2:53 to play after a well-placed, 58-yard punt by Tim Masthay. Hanie converted one third-and-9 and got 8 yards on another, setting up fourth-and-1 at midfield with 1:54 remaining, with Chester Taylor moving the chains. Hanie then hit Forte for 13 yards to the 34. Finally, on fourth-and-5 from the 29, Shields made the game-saving interception that punched the Packers' ticket to the Super Bowl.
The game couldn't have started any better for the Packers with an 84-yard, game-opening touchdown drive. Rodgers went right after cornerback Tim Jennings and safety Chris Harris for completions of 22 and 26 yards to Greg Jennings and 24 yards to Jordy Nelson, the last of which made it first-and-goal at the 2. On second-and-goal, the Packers lined up in the same run-heavy formation with Raji as a fullback that they scored a touchdown on last week. This time, it was a pass, with Rodgers scoring on a bootleg.
With the defense holding the Bears to three consecutive punts, the Packers drove to a 14-0 lead. They had a short field, thanks to Jarrett Bush and Brandon Underwood combining to down a punt at the 2-yard line and the defense forcing a three-and-out. The highlight of the drive came on second-and-13, when Rodgers checked the ball down to Brandon Jackson, whose juke left Pro Bowl linebacker Brian Urlacher standing as if he were stuck in quick sand. A 12-yard run by James Starks (22 carries, 74 yards) on a great cutback and a 15-yard completion to Nelson set up Starks' 4-yard touchdown run.
That's how it stood going into halftime after a wild exchange of interceptions. With Green Bay driving to at least a field goal, Rodgers' low pass to Donald Driver hit Driver in the left foot and bounced right into the mitts of Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs. After a completion to Matt Forte moved the ball to the Packers' 45, Cutler went deep to Johnny Knox but Shields ran step-for-step with the speedster and made a great leaping grab near the goal line.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.