Rodgers, Packers move on
CHICAGO — When the final gun sounded, Donald Driver didn’t know how to feel.
He knew how he was supposed to feel, since the dream he had for most of his 35 years — a berth in the Super Bowl — finally had been realized with the Packers’ 21-14 victory over the Bears in the NFC Championship game at Soldier Field yesterday.
But the reality was something different.
And then the receiver saw cornerback Charles Woodson. With a combined 25 seasons and 360 games — and nary a Super Bowl title — between them, that’s when the tears came.
“I think we know exactly what this means for us,’’ Driver said. “This was a great opportunity for us. This is something we’ve dreamed of for a long time.
“He said, ‘Drive, this has been a long road for both of us. And now we’re here.’ And then he said, ‘Let’s go win it all.’ That means more to me than anything else.’’
Yes, the Pack are back in the Super Bowl, with a chance to win their 13th NFL championship and the trophy named after their legendary coach, Vince Lombardi.
“I’m numb,’’ coach Mike McCarthy said. “We’ve always felt that we are a very good football team. Now we have the opportunity to achieve greatness, and that is winning the Super Bowl down in Dallas and bring the Lombardi Trophy back home. We never doubted that throughout the season.’’
If they did, no one would blame the Packers.
Green Bay (13-6) lost six starters — three on each side of the ball — to injured reserve and had a total of 11 starters miss a combined 86 games.
To say nothing of what happened in the turbulent summer of 2008, when the Packers made the decision to trade quarterback Brett Favre and go with Aaron Rodgers as the starter.
The decision so divided the fervent fan base and stirred up such deep resentment that McCarthy had to start sending phone calls to his office straight to voicemail. The language was so vile that no one could handle the calls live.
Those same fans watched Favre lead the hated Vikings to within just a few plays of the Super Bowl.
He couldn’t finish the deed, which is part of the reason the Packers parted ways with the man who resuscitated a franchise that had been on life support for years.
Rodgers did finish the job, with a lot of help from his teammates, including a defense that knocked two Bears quarterbacks from the game and forced them to finish with third-stringer Caleb Hanie, who scared everyone in green and gold with a furious rally. It didn’t end until Packers cornerback Sam Shields, an undrafted free agent in April, made his second interception with 47 seconds left.
“It’s nice to stand here now having won the NFC championship and to be able to take the Packers back to the Super Bowl,’’ said general manager Ted Thompson, who took the brunt of fan criticism as the Packers got off to slow starts in each of the three seasons since the Favre trade.
“I don’t get into this ‘satisfaction’ or ‘showing people up’ or anything like that. Most Packers fans are good people and they want the Packers to do good. And when we do good, they pat us on the back. And when we don’t, they don’t pat us on the back, and that’s the way the NFL is.’’
After carving up the Falcons in the divisional round, Rodgers looked to do the same as the Packers opened the game with a seven-play, 84-yard scoring drive.
“They outexecuted us,’’ said Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher. “The first series, I don’t think they faced a third down. Just kind of went through our defense like [we] weren’t there. The whole first half was pretty much like that. We finally got after them a little bit.’’
Rodgers struggled the rest of the game to put the Bears away, and threw two interceptions. Perhaps Rodgers’s biggest play was his tackle on Urlacher after a third-quarter interception.
Rodgers was the last person between Urlacher and a 94-yard touchdown return, and he made the play.
“It was a terrible throw,’’ Rodgers said. “When he turned and faced me, I knew that I had to make a stand. I’m glad I got him down.’’
The game had a decided New England flavor — for reasons that were expected and unexpected.
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was taken out of the game by the medical staff after the first drive in the second half because of a knee injury.
Todd Collins, the 39-year-old Walpole, Mass., native, came on in relief but was pulled after a stinger, two failed drives, and no completions in four attempts.
“I was just disappointed that in the two series that I was in there, we weren’t able to produce more yards,’’ Collins said. “I had a good opportunity to help the team to the Super Bowl and it didn’t happen.’’
Out of desperation, the Bears turned to Hanie, an undrafted free agent in ’08 out of Colorado State. He completed 13 of 20 passes and led the Bears on two scoring drives, but he threw an interception that was returned for an 18-yard touchdown by 337-pound Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji.
The Boston College product seemed to be in the backfield of the Bears (12-6) all game long.
“B.J. has been real consistent all year,’’ said Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who will be in the Super Bowl for the first time in his 25-year career. “He’s played tremendously for us the last five, six games, and been a real key factor in our defense.’’