CHICAGO -- A few thoughts on an NFC Championship Game that got pretty interesting in the second half:
What it means: The Green Bay Packers became only the second No. 6 seed ever to advance to the Super Bowl, where they will take on either the Pittsburgh Steelers or New York Jets. It will be the fifth appearance in the Super Bowl in franchise history for the Packers.
Clutch: The Packers took a 14-0 lead early with 11 minutes, 13 seconds remaining in the first half before the Bears' defense caught its breath. So as it turned out, the Packers’ final margin of victory was nose tackle B.J. Raji's 18-yard touchdown return of an interception. (We’ll get to why Bears No. 3 quarterback Caleb Hanie threw that pass in a moment.) Raji backed off the line as part of a zone blitz, and Hanie never saw him as he threw a dump-off pass to tailback Matt Forte.
CutlerWatch: Hanie was in the game because No. 2 quarterback Todd Collins was wholly ineffective after replacing starter Jay Cutler in the third quarter. All we know at this moment is that Cutler injured his left knee at some point during the first half. He left early for the Bears’ locker room before halftime, returned for the first series of the third quarter, threw one incomplete pass and then left the game for good. Cyberspace lit up with criticism about the murky nature of Cutler’s departure. What was the exact injury? How hurt could he be if he stood and watched the second half on the sideline? As much as we all want to pile on Cutler, my suggestion is to wait until we get more information and hear from the main participants. If it turns out that he quit on his team in the NFC Championship Game, or at least wasn’t willing to tough it out, we’ll all have plenty of time to react once that becomes clear. Until then, let’s not jump the gun too quickly.
HanieWatch: How many Google searches were there for “Caleb Hanie” on Sunday afternoon? Hanie was the Bears’ No. 2 quarterback during the previous season and was set for the same role in 2010 before a preseason shoulder injury. He is mobile, competitive and, now, nearly legendary. This game wasn’t over until 37 seconds remained. Packers rookie Sam Shields capped an excellent game with his second interception.
RodgersWatch: This game appeared to be a runaway early on, as quarterback Aaron Rodgers took the Packers 84 yards on seven plays in the opening drive. But Rodgers hasn’t had many monster games in his career against the Bears and Sunday was no different. He completed 17 of 30 passes for 244 yards, throwing two interceptions. The second cost the Packers at least a field goal deep in Bears territory, although Rodgers did save a touchdown when he tripped up Brian Urlacher on the return.
ShieldsWatch: The improvement of the Packers’ pass defense from last year’s playoffs to this season was never more apparent Sunday. Even before his fourth-quarter interception, Shields made two spectacular plays in the second quarter, sacking Cutler and forcing a fumble on a third-down play and then intercepting him at the Packers’ 3-yard line on the next series. Shields was also blitzing on Raji’s interception.
What’s next: Two more weeks of hype before Super Bowl XLV.