CHICAGO (AP) — There was one Monster of the Midway in the NFC championship game and his name was Aaron Rodgers.
He ran for a touchdown. He made a touchdown-saving tackle. And he was better than three Bears quarterbacks in leading the Green Bay Packers to the Super Bowl with an ugly-but-beautiful 21-14 victory Sunday over Chicago.
"It’s a dream come true," Rodgers said. "It’s an incredible feeling. I’m at a loss for words."
Rodgers kept the Bears’ defense off balance all afternoon, Green Bay punter Tim Masthay kept Devin Hester under wraps and the Packers’ superb defense took care of the rest in knocking the rival Bears out of the playoffs.
It was the 182nd meeting in the league’s most historic rivalry, and the stakes had never been bigger.
Now the Packers (13-6) are headed to Dallas. And no matter what happens in the Super Bowl, the Packers and their fans hold ultimate bragging rights over their rivals to the South. The Packers will play the winner of Sunday night’s AFC title game between the New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers.
All Jay Cutler could do was watch, having left the game with a knee injury early in the third quarter. And with Cutler sitting, little-known backup Caleb Hanie actually made it a game.
Chicago’s third-string quarterback rallied the Bears for a touchdown drive to cut the lead to 14-7 after Chester Taylor’s 1-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter.
Hanie and the Bears had a chance to tie the game after the Bears’ defense finally got a few stops, but Hanie threw a ball straight to Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji, who lumbered 18 yards into the end zone for a touchdown to give the Packers a 21-7 lead.
But Hanie wasn’t finished, throwing a 35-yard touchdown pass to Earl Bennett to again cut the lead to seven points with 4:43 left.
The Bears (12-6) forced a punt and got the ball back with under 3 minutes left. Hanie drove the Bears to the Green Bay 29-yard line, then threw a fourth-down interception to Sam Shields — the rookie’s second interception of the game.
Now all those Pro Bowl voters who didn’t think Rodgers was worthy can relax. They’re off the hook.
Rodgers will be busy getting ready for the Super Bowl instead.
Rodgers proved ready for the biggest day of his brief but impressive career as the successor to Brett Favre, even if his final stat line didn’t look impressive after an ugly, hard-fought game.
He threw for 244 yards with two interceptions, but his play in the first half put the Bears in a hole as their defense that seemed to fall for every play-action fake.
"You have to give credit to their defense," Rodgers said. "I didn’t play my best game. They had a good plan."
It was the latest in a series of big moments for Rodgers, who wasn’t named to the Pro Bowl but has earned near-universal praise for the way he has played this season — especially since sitting out the Packers’ Dec. 19 loss at New England because of a concussion.
Rodgers has been on a hot streak ever since, and doing it under pressure. The Packers would have been out of the playoffs with a loss in either of their last two regular-season games, including the regular season finale against Chicago.
With the Packers leading 14-0 at halftime, Green Bay’s defense forced a three-and-out to begin the second half, and Rodgers went back to marching the Packers down the field.
Rodgers then threw an interception to Brian Urlacher on third-and-goal, ran him down near midfield, and just barely prevented him from running it back for a touchdown by throwing him off balance with his attempt at a tackle.
But the Bears couldn’t make anything happen with primary backup Todd Collins in for Cutler, and appeared to be headed for a blowout until Hanie took over.
Packers players were surprised Cutler didn’t come back.
"You know if he doesn’t come back it had to be serious, not to come back and play in this game," Charles Woodson said.
Packers linebacker Clay Matthews wasn’t sure when Cutler got hurt.
"Obviously you expect to get four quarters of play, but who knows what we did to him," Matthews said.
Rodgers was stellar on the Packers’ first possession of the game, hitting Greg Jennings for long gains and later finding Jordy Nelson wide open after a play fake for a long completion to set up first-and-goal. Rodgers kept the ball on a bootleg two plays later, stretching the ball over the goal line to put the Packers on the scoreboard first.
But the Packers lost veteran left tackle Chad Clifton to a neck stinger when he collided with a teammate on the touchdown play. Clifton would return midway through the second quarter.
The Bears went with a heavy dose of running back Matt Forte early on, with very limited success.
Green Bay’s defense forced the Bears to punt out of their own end zone late in the first quarter — and returner Tramon Williams bobbled the ball, then got it back to give the Packers’ offense good field position. Brandon Jackson faked Urlacher out for a long gain on a screen pass, and Rodgers’ pass to Nelson set up James Starks’ 4-yard touchdown run to give Green Bay a 14-0 lead.
The Bears were in a hole, and even Hanie’s unlikely rallies couldn’t bring them back.
"Just disappointment," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "We got into a hole but the guys fought back."