NFC Championship recap.
Green Bay Packers 21, Chicago Bears 14
Both the NFC and AFC championship games shared similarities. Both game featured strong defenses and good young quarterbacks. Both also saw one team own the first half only to have the other wake up and make a game of it.
Green Bay game started the game in fine form. On the first play from scrimmage, QB Aaron Rodgers hit wide receiver Greg Jennings for a 22 yard gain. Right after that, the two connected again for a 26 yard gain. It was evident that they meant business. The drive was capped with a bootleg touchdown run by Rodgers that caught Chicago completely by surprise. When they kicked off to the Bears following the extra point, just over four minutes had expired. Chicago was unable to answer the opening score, and was forced to punt.
Actually, Chicago was unable to answer any of Green Bay’s scoring until the 4th quarter. In the first half, QB Jay Cutler and the Bears offense struggled to find a rhythm and was forced to punt on five of their six possessions, with the sixth one ending with an interception. All told, when Green Bay went into the locker room with a 14-0 lead, Chicago’s best drive was 6 plays and 35 yards.
And now this is where it gets interesting. All of today’s talk about Championship Weekend has not been about Aaron Rodgers making it to the Super Bowl and proving that the Packers were right about trading Brett Favre. Nor has it been about how the Steelers are on the verge of winning their third Super Bowl in six years. Certainly, those have been discussed, but they have not received anywhere near the airtime that Jay Cutler has. After Chicago’s first drive of the 3rd quarter, Cutler was taken out of the game and replaced by longtime backup Todd Collins. The move was mystifying because it appeared to everyone that Cutler was just fine because there he was on the sideline, using an exercise bike and then standing for much of the 2nd half. But more on that later.
After two ineffective possessions, Collins was removed and replaced by Caleb Hanie, a second year player who had appeared in only five games prior and had career totals of 66 yards passing on 8-14 attempts. At this time, Green Bay is still sitting on 14 points, but with the way their defense was playing it didn’t seem that there was any worry. They had knocked Jay Cutler out of the game and hadn’t allowed Collins to get anything started. Now they were going up against a young guy who had less passing yards for his career than Cutler had in the first half (80 yards, for those keeping score). For all intents and purposes, it didn’t look as if the second half would be much different. It looked as if the second half would be even more of a cakewalk than the first.
But it wasn’t.
Caleb Hanie, playing in his sixth game as a professional, brought the Bears pretty close to a comeback. On his first drive, he hit Johnny Knox for a 32 yard completion to set up a 1 yard touchdown from Chester Taylor. He also got help from the defense, which came alive and did not allow Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense to score again; they forced five punts and picked
Rodgers off once. But then Hanie threw an interception directly to B.J. Raji, Green Bay’s 337 lb. nose tackle, which he promptly took and rumbled into the endzone with. Raji narrowly made it, though. As soon as he caught the ball and started to run, Raji held the ball out in celebration, only to have Hanie chase him down and knock it loose a fraction of a second after the ball crossed the goal line. That put the score at 21-7, which was pretty much the game. Hanie would connect with Earl Bennett for another touchdown, but threw another interception, this time to Sam Shields, on Chicago’s final, desperation drive to tie the game. Though I was pulling for the Packers, I found myself hoping Hanie would do well. He came into the game in an impossible situation and I couldn’t help but wonder, what if he pulled it off? We’ve seen some pretty exciting comebacks in the playoffs, but how often are they led by an inexperienced 3rd string quarterback.
I think there is one play that has been somewhat overlooked and would have altered the game in a big way is Brian Urlacher’s interception of Aaron Rodgers in the third quarter, or rather the shoestring tackle Rodgers made on the return. If Rodgers doesn’t make that tackle, the Bears score and are down 14-7 before Hanie throws his two touchdowns. If Rodgers doesn’t run Urlacher down, that game goes into overtime.
And now, what to make of Jay Cutler? Should he have come back in the game? I knew what was going to happen when I saw him on the sideline during the second half. I had a feeling that when I delved into the day’s sports news and saw the reactions, they were going to be filled with the macho “when you’re a quarterback in the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE you HAVE to be out there unless you’re seriously hurt!!” sentiments.
While that wasn’t quite the reaction from the media, who seemed to be waiting for the injury report, Cutler’s fellow players lit into him on Twitter. A lot of guys were going after him for a perceived lack of toughness and they all talked about how they would be on the field despite injury. (One of these was Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew who, as Cutler’s teammate Tim Jennings pointed out on “The Jim Rome Show”, missed the last two games of the season even as the Jaguars were chasing a playoff spot). Basically, they all labeled Cutler a quitter before even finding out the extent of the injury, which turned out to be an MCL sprain. And a lot of people, mainly those who don’t play football, are scoffing at that too. I don’t know anything about this type of injury (and unless you’re an orthopedic surgeon, you probably don’t either), but I’m willing to believe that if Cutler was held out of the game by his coaches-that’s right, he didn’t pull himself out-because it wasn’t simply “just a sprain.” As silly as it may sound, the reaction would probably be negligible if he had been on the sidelines with a pair of crutches.
For my part, I don’t think Jay Cutler was being a wimp or faking an injury.