David J. Philip, Associated Press
CHICAGO — Aaron Rodgers didn't want to let go of the ball.
He took that final knee and savored the moment, basking in his biggest victory after the Green Bay Packers knocked off Chicago in the NFC championship game on Sunday.
"I actually have the ball from all three of our playoff wins this postseason," Rodgers said. "It's nice to be on the field there at the end. It's a special feeling. It's something you dream about as a kid."
For Cheeseheads, this is as good as it gets.
Not only did the Packers advance to the Super Bowl for the first time in 13 years, they did it at their rivals' expense. At Soldier Field, no less.
They knocked Jay Cutler out of the game with a knee injury, held Devin Hester in check and sent the Monsters of the Midway home.
Now, the Packers will head to Dallas to face Pittsburgh in another matchup between marquee franchises. Never before have these teams played in the Super Bowl.
And not since Brett Favre was leading the way have the Packers advanced this far, with the 1996 team winning it all and the 1997 team falling to Denver. Now, they're in the Super Bowl for the fifth time, aiming for their fourth victory and 13th championship in all, and they didn't necessarily need Rodgers to be at his best to get there on Sunday.
Even so, he took a Lambeau leap out of Favre's shadow and landed on the biggest stage of all.
He threw for 244 yards with a 55.4 rating and got picked off twice but delivered one of the biggest plays of the game after one of those interceptions — a touchdown-saving tackle on Brian Urlacher in the third with Green Bay up 14-0.
"He's as good as they come," Packers cornerback Charles Woodson said. "Regardless of the running game, when he has to bear most of the responsibilities without a running game and do a lot with his arm or legs, he's done that. He's done it all season. The guy has a steady hand, and he's a big-play guy. And he's done a great job for the team."
Greg Jennings had a big game for Green Bay, catching eight passes for 130 yards, and Sam Shields had two interceptions.
For Cutler, it was simply a rough day.
He was injured late in the first half and left after the opening drive of the third, completing just 6 of 14 passes for 80 yards.
Todd Collins replaced him and lasted just two series before getting lifted for third-stringer Caleb Hanie, and that's when things got interesting.
He led the Bears to two fourth-quarter touchdowns but also threw two interceptions, with B.J. Raji returning one for a touchdown and Shields picking off a pass with less than a minute left to seal the win.
"A lot of respect for Green Bay. They lost a lot of players, and for them to come out here and put on that kind of performance for the whole playoffs, I mean you have to give them your respect," Bears center Olin Kreutz said.
Green Bay had 15 players land on injured reserve this season, including several key members of the defense, but look at the Packers now.
They're one win away from the ultimate prize.
The fans at Soldier Field was ready to celebrate right from the start, going wild from the national anthem on, but Rodgers quickly quieted them.
Coming off a spectacular effort against Atlanta, he led the Packers on an 84-yard touchdown drive on the opening possession, running it in from the 1, and a 4-yard scoring run by James Starks early in the second made it 14-0. The Bears seemed to bite on every play-action fake in the early going, an uncharacteristic performance for a defense that ranked among the best, and the offense couldn't get anything going.
Cutler was out of sync, forcing passes. He never seemed comfortable even before his injury late in the first half.
"We missed a corner route that first series to Devin, missed a few things," Cutler said. "Our defense played a heck of a game and gave us a shot there at the end."
Even so, the Bears came up short and are headed home after a wild season.
It was hard to envision them making the playoffs after that brutal stretch early on, when they dropped three of four and headed into their off week at 4-3, but they regrouped. They committed to the run and settled on a starting offensive line, helping take some of the load off Cutler.
That led to a season-saving 7-1 run gave them the NFC North championship and an opening round bye in their first playoff appearance since the 2006 team made the Super Bowl.
"Right now it's hard to really say it was successful when you lose like that, when you're that close to being in the Super Bowl," tight end Greg Olsen said. "It's definitely a tough one to swallow here at home, I know our fans were really counting on this one, as were we. It's disappointing, but I think a week from now we can look back and say 'Hey, for the first year, the things that we have gone through, the offseason, the new coaches, the new offense, throw all that stuff together, and for a young team we made a lot of progress and let's come back next year and try to make it that next step."
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