(Ed. note: See the 10 things we learned from the AFC title game here)
By Jeff Goldberg
Cold, Hard Football Facts bratwurst-eating champion
The Green Bay Packers, they're not just a champion on paper anymore.
The stats had been pointing the Packers toward destiny in Dallas all season. In fact, they were the top-rated team in the NFC, according to our Quality Stats, and No. 1 in three of those indicators. But the on-field product, at least for the first 15 weeks of 2010, was simply not able to make a smooth transition.
That all ended once Aaron Rodgers returned from his concussion. And though Rodgers delivered early in Sunday's NFC championship game in Chicago, it was the less-heralded, but equally formidable defense that finally put the Bears down in a 21-14 Green Bay victory and returned TitleTown to its rightful place in the Super Bowl.
Here are 10 things we learned:
1. Rodgers and the Packers were ripe to be picked off. The first four minutes of Sunday's game was like the first battle scene in War of the Worlds. The Bears could only look on in horror as Rodgers used his deadly arsenal of lasers to devastating effect all over Soldier Field. Four passes, four completions, three for over 20 yards, and a 7-0 lead.
It was par for the course for Rodgers, who put up ridiculous numbers in his first game back against the Giants in Week 16 and torched the Falcons in last week's divisional round.
But the Bears defense, which kept Rodgers from going off in his must-win Week 17 matchup, ultimately justified its No. 3 Defensive Passer Rating. Led by Brian Urlacher, the Bears dug in and held the line, allowing the Green Bay offense just one more score over the remaining 55:50 of the game. Rodgers would not throw a single touchdown pass, completing just 13 of 26 passes for 168 yards and two interceptions after the opening drive. His final passer rating was a humble 55.4.
The Bears also forced the Packers, ranked eighth in third-down efficiency, into a rare 2-for-11 performance, ensuring that the beleaguered Bears offense would at least have a chance to tie the score late.
Stop us if you heard this story before: if the Bears only had a quarterback, this game might have ended differently.
2. Close call or not, Rodgers is officially the Steve Young of the new century. It is a theme you will hear played out over the next two weeks. Just as Young replaced the legendary Joe Montana in San Francisco to win Super Bowl XXIX, now it is Rodgers who follows in BrettFavre's Wranglers into a Super Bowl of his own.
And like Young, Rodgers again showed he can be as dangerous with his legs as with his arm, rushing seven times for 39 yards and a touchdown. How ironic that Rodgers will be looking to win his Super Bowl in Dallas, the team Young needed three tries to beat in the NFC championship game in order to shed the Montana Monkey from his back.
3. Jay Cutler reverted to form at just the wrong time. Troy Aikman said before the game that Cutler would have to be better than Rodgers in order for the Bears to win. In other words, Aikman was saying the Bears had no chance.
That Cutler would be forced from the game early in the second half was probably the best thing that happened to the Bears all day. In response to Rodgers' surgical strike to open the game, Cutler had his chance to match it, spotting an open Devin Hester on a 3rd-and-7 from Green Bay's 34-yard line. But when he needed to be perfect, Cutler overthrew his target, and instead of a potential game-tying lightning strike, the Bears were forced to punt. He overthrew Hester again later in the first half, again with a chance to score.
It never got better for Cutler, even as Rodgers sunk to his level and dared Cutler to beat him. Instead, Cutler completed 6 of 14 passes for 80 yards and a pick. So even on a day when Rodgers' passer rating was a miserable 55.4, Cutler could not do better, racking up a 31.8 before being forced from the game with the knee injury.
4. It's a fine line between fiction and real-life Gary Hogeboom or Caleb Hanie. We hadn't seen a relief appearance like Hanie's in a big game since the spirit of Joe Pendleton, via Leo Farnsworth, occupied the corpse of Tom Jarrett and led the Rams to that stunning Super Bowl victory over the Steelers.
Ah, but that only happens in the movies. We may never forget the valiant try by third-string quarterback Hanie to lead the Bears from a 14-point deficit and nearly force overtime drama. But we also won't suffer through his life story ad nauseam during Super Bowl media week.
It was big B.J. Raji who ruined the story, a la Washington's Darryl Grant against Hogeboom and the Cowboys in the 1982 NFC championship game at the old RFK. Both big men punctuated NFC title tilts with unexpected fourth-quarter pick-sixes to seal the game.
Grant celebrated his beefy TD with a thunderous spike of the football that, if the wind blows from the right direction on a dry winter night, you can still hear echo around northern Virginia. Raji celebrated his beefy pick-six with a jiggling jig in the end zone.
In either case, you have to admire the cajones of Mr. Hanie, who led the Bears right back down the field to make it a one-score game, and had a chance to tie it before throwing his second, fatal interception deep in Green Bay territory.
5. James Starks changes everything for the Packers. Ever since the season-ending injury to Ryan Grant – and many Green Bay fans would probably say even before Grant's injury – the Packers have been looking for a reliable running compliment to the Rodgers Air Show.
Brandon Jackson couldn't do it, and John Kuhn isn't that type of back.
Rookie James Starks is that kind of back. And he helped keep Chicago's dangerous pass-rush honest by rushing 22 times for 74 yards. It wasn't overpowering. But the Packers were able to stay right at their season average with 3.75 YPA on the ground Sunday.
6. Matt Forte gave the Bears a fighting chance: If the Bears offense faced any weakness it could exploit, it was a Green Bay defense that ranked 28th against the run (4.64 YPA).
The better the Bears could run the ball, the less likely Cutler and Co. could screw things up with bad passes and interceptions and the more likely the Packers offense would watch from the sideline.
Forte held up that end of the bargain, rushing for 70 yards on 17 carries (a respectable 4.1 YPA). He also caught a game-high 10 passes for 90 yards. But Forte could not do it alone, the Packers still owned a 35-25 time-of-possession advantage, and the Bears proved, yet again, that throwing three interceptions or more in a playoff game is almost certain death.
7. The Packers bend, but they don't break. The Packers led the NFL this season in Bendability, surrendering 20.61 Yards Per Point Allowed.
On Sunday, the Packers produced a tremendous 21.5 Yards Per Point Allowed. The Bears, who ranked sixth in Bendability at 17.58 Yards Per Point Allowed, saw that number drop to 16.9 against Green Bay.
The higher the number, the better for your team. And in a one-score game Sunday, Green Bay's number was a little higher and Chicago's little lower.
8. No Lambeau Leap; Just Dawson's Creek: Rodgers now shares a remarkable distinction in Super Bowl history, becoming just the third quarterback to appear in a Super Bowl before his first home playoff game.
Len Dawson led the Chiefs to four road victories, three AFL titles and not one, but two Super Bowls (I and IV) before playing his first and only postseason game in Kansas City in 1971. And New England's immortal Tony Eason won three road games in his first playoff season in 1985 before turning into Jell-O against the Bears in Super Bowl XX. Eason never did play in a posteason game in Foxboro, losing in the divisional round in 1986 to the Broncos in Denver before riding off into the sunset of mediocrity.
Rodgers made his playoff debut last January in Arizona, losing the real-life Tecmo Bowl overtime thriller to the Cardinals. This season, as the No. 6 seed, the Packers played all three postseason games on the road to reach Dallas.
9. Tim Masthay out-ridiculoused Devin Hester in the punting game: The Bears needed every advantage they could muster Sunday, and one area they usually find success is in the return game.
But Devin Hester never had a chance, as Packers rookie punter Tim Masthay kept the Bears pinned inside their 20 all day long. Five of Masthay's eight punts were inside the 20 (16, 3, 11, 18 and 10), a sixth was nearly downed at the goal line and was ruled a touchback and another inside the 20 was wiped out on a penalty.
Hester had just three returns for 16 yards, and it was Masthay's out-of-bounds punt midway through the fourth quarter from the Bears 35 that pinned the Bears on their 10. Three plays later, B.J. Raji had his game-winning pick-six.
10. Brian Urlacher went down fighting. The history of quarterbacks in Chicago has been a long and sorry once since all-time team passing leader Sid Luckman and his leather helmet walked off into the Second City sunset 61 years ago.
Conversely, the Bears have fielded an incomparable list of legendary middle linebackers over the last 60 years. Hall of Famer Bill George (1952-65) was replaced by Hall of Famer Dick Butkus (1965-73) who was eventually replaced by Hall of Famer Mike Singletary (1982-92) who was eventually replaced by perennial Pro Bowler Brian Urlacher.
Too bad it's not a linebackers' league.
Urlacher missed most of 2009 and some thought he was washed up. But he rebounded with another Pro Bowl-caliber performance in 2010, while leading one of the league's best defenses.
And in a game when his team was handicapped by an offense that ranged from incompetent (Cutler) to comical (Collins), Urlacher and his mates nearly pulled it out with a totally untested third-string quarterback not even good enough to beat out Todd Collins for the No. 2 job.
Urlacher recorded the team's only sack, led the Bears with 10 total tackles and swallowed up an INT near his own goal line. He might have rumbled 94 yards for a stunning pick six, except he was brought down, and just barely, with a last-ditch tackle by Aaron Rodgers.