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THE GREEN BAY PACKERS WON THE NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME ON JAN. 23 in Chicago thanks mostly to three men who demonstrated the team's talent, depth and versatility: quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose biggest play of the day was a tackle; athletic space-eater B.J. Raji, the 2009 first-round pick and centerpiece of a havoc-wreaking defensive front; and cornerback Sam Shields, an undrafted free agent out of Miami who had never played the position until 17 months ago. Sunday was their day and Soldier Field their stage, where the sport's two winningest franchises played each other for the 182nd time.
It took Rodgers four minutes to put his stamp on a game the Packers would win 21--14. He was 4 for 4 for 76 yards on the first series, which ended with him bootlegging in for a touchdown from a yard out. Three possessions later, on a 56-yard drive, he completed both of his throws, for 31 yards. Green Bay led 14--0.
Meanwhile Bears quarterback Jay Cutler had completed only 6 of 14 passes for 80 yards. At some point before halftime he suffered a left-knee injury, and at the break trainers found Cutler's knee to be unstable. After he tried to play one series, he came out for good.
While Cutler cooled his heels, Rodgers struggled. Midway through the third quarter, he threw a pass that looked as if it had been intended more for Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher than receiver Donald Driver. Urlacher made the pick at his own six-yard line and took off. The only Packer with a chance at stopping him? Rodgers. "He was either going to run me over or I [was] going to be able to tackle him," Rodgers said postgame. "Luckily I was able to get him down."
The toothless Bears, with Todd Collins now under center, couldn't take advantage of the turnover, and the score remained 14--0. Third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie soon replaced the ineffective Collins and led the Bears to their first touchdown. Now it was up to Shields and Raji to make an impact. Shields had intercepted Cutler at the Green Bay three late in the first half on a leaping, acrobatic catch, and midway through the fourth quarter, Raji and Shields combined to make the defensive play of the day. On third-and-five from the Chicago 15, Packers coordinator Dom Capers called the Right Cat blitz, in which Shields would rush from wide on the right and Raji, if the running back sneaked out for a screen pass, would drop into coverage.
"But [Matt] Forte went into a gray area," said Raji. "Not really out and not really in the flat. I just drifted out near him, and the QB threw it. I was shocked."
Pressured by Shields, Hanie fired the ball right to the Pack's 337-pound tackle, who ran 18 yards for a touchdown to extend the lead to 21--7. Later, with the score 21--14, Shields, a former wide receiver, sealed the game with a last-minute interception at the Green Bay 12.
Now it was on to Dallas, where the Packers would try to win their first Super Bowl in 14 years. It seemed certain that the stage wouldn't be too big for this cool team. Cornerback Charles Woodson was reminded that President Obama, a Chicagoan, had said he'd attend the game only if the Bears made it. "If Obama's not going to come see us," Woodson said, "then we'll just have to go see him in Washington."