CHICAGO — There was one Monster of the Midway in the NFC championship game and his name was Aaron Rodgers.
He wasn’t even at his best and, still, he was better than the first, the second and the third quarterback used in vain by the Chicago Bears against their bitter rivals.
Rodgers ran for a score and made a TD-saving tackle in leading the Green Bay Packers into the Super Bowl with a bone-jarring 21-14 victory Sunday over Chicago.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” Rodgers said. “I’m at a loss for words.”
Rodgers played well enough to keep the Bears 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 Bears out of the playoffs.
It was the 182nd meeting in the league’s most historic feud, 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 on Feb. 6, the Packers and their fans hold ultimate bragging rights over their foes to the south. Green Bay will play the Pittsburgh Steelers, who topped the New York Jets 24-19 in the AFC championship game.
“We made a play to win the game and that’s all that matters,” Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. “Keep playing defense the way we know how, and it’s going to be tough for teams to beat us.”
All Jay Cutler could do was watch, having left the game with a knee injury early in the third quarter. Even before the injury, Cutler was having trouble moving the ball. Worse, he was getting booed by the home fans.
Primary backup Todd Collins replaced Cutler and was jeered even worse. Then little-known backup Caleb Hanie and the Bears (12-6) 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 had a chance to tie the game after the Bears’ defense finally got a few stops, but 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. He threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Earl Bennett to again cut the lead to seven points with 4:43 left.
The Bears 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 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 headed to 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 — a disappointment, given how well he had played lately. But his play in the first half was good enough to put the Bears in a two-touchdown hole, boggling a good defense that suddenly seemed to fall for every play-action fake.
Chicago was ready for a championship party under sunny skies and 20-degree temperatures, and went wild from the national anthem on. But Rodgers quieted them down quickly, marching the Packers on an opening drive then ended with Rodgers scrambling for a score.
The Bears went with a heavy dose of running back Matt Forte early on, with limited success.
Early in the second quarter, Brandon Jackson faked Brian Urlacher out for a long gain on a screen pass, and Rodgers’ pass to Jordy Nelson set up James Starks’ 4-yard touchdown run to give Green Bay a 14-0 lead.
It was the latest in a series of big moments for Rodgers, who 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.
With the Packers poised to put the game away, Rodgers instead tossed the ball to Urlacher on third-and-goal. He took off and ran down the Bears linebacker near midfield, barely preventing him from running it back for a touchdown when he grabbed him.
“I don’t think he saw me,” Urlacher said. “He threw it to me — then he tackled me.”
Rodgers’ play almost certainly saved a score and might have saved the game.
“I don’t get paid to tackle, but that was probably one of my better plays of the game,” Rodgers said.
Urlacher, who said earlier in the week that he voted for Rodgers for the Pro Bowl, walked away impressed.
“Great quarterback, no doubt about that,” Urlacher said.
But after Urlacher’s interception, the Bears couldn’t make anything happen with 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.
Matthews wasn’t sure when Cutler got hurt.
“Kinda wish they would have had Jay in there the whole time the way things were going,” Matthews said.
Bears coach Lovie Smith grew testy after being asked several questions about Cutler’s injury.
“He hurt his knee and he was out, all right?” Smith said. “There’s nothing else for me to tell you on that. I don’t know exactly when it happened, he couldn’t go and that was that.”