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Forté steamrollers Tampa as Bears ground Bucs’ aerial attack

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 18 Chicago Bears 24

Despite a spirited fourth quarter fight-back by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Wembley Stadium, the Chicago Bears‘ defense came through in the clutch as D J Moore snuffed out a last-ditch Bucs drive with a fourth interception of Josh Freeman with 37 seconds remaining. In an error-strewn game, the two teams combined for six turnovers, 15 penalties and a safety. Running back Matt Forté was the difference-maker for Chicago, rushing for 145 yards as the Bears joined Tampa on a record of 4-3 as both teams move into their bye week.

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NFC Championship: ‘Freezer’ puts Bears on ice, Packers head for Super Bowl

Chicago Bears 14 Green Bay Packers 21

On a typically cold January afternoon on the shores of Lake Michigan – the temperature at kickoff was -7ºC (20ºF) – Green Bay Packers defensive tackle B.J.’The Freezer’ Raji put the Chicago Bears‘ Super Bowl aspirations on ice with a fourth quarter, 18-yard interception return for a touchdown to squash an unlikely comeback led by third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie. Victory means the Packers advance to Super Bowl XLV to face the Pittsburgh Steelers in two weeks’ time.

The Bears had won the teams’ week three meeting at Soldier Field, scoring 13 fourth quarter points to run out 20-17 winners. The Packers had won the return fixture at Lambeau Field on the final weekend of the regular season, a dour 10-3 victory which clinched the NFC’s sixth and last playoff slot. This gave them the hardest possible route to the NFC Championship game, but 21-16 and 48-21 wins in Philadelphia and Atlanta saw them installed as marginal favourites against a Bears team which had strolled to a 35-24 decision over the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round last week.

Green Bay dominate first half

Rodgers opened the scoring on a one-yard bootleg (image courtesy of packers.com)

The Packers set the tone for the first half on the opening possession of the game. Aaron Rodgers hit receiver Greg Jennings with deep throws on the first two snaps as they marched from their own 16-yard line to the Chicago one in six plays.

On second-and-goal, 337-pound defensive tackle Raji reported in as a lead blocker in the Packers’ ‘heavy’ formation and Rodgers sold the Bears’ defense a dummy, faking the inside hand-off, rolling left on a naked bootleg and beating two defenders to the pylon.

Meanwhile, Chicago’s hot-and-cold offense looked decidedly frozen. With Green Bay applying plenty of pressure with their pass rush, quarterback Jay Cutler – who had had a hot hand against the Seahawks – was struggling to find any rhythm. He overthrew an open Devin Hester down the left sideline on a key third down, and the Bears stalled time and again, punting on their first five possessions.

The Bears’ defense kept the home team in the game, however. A Brian Urlacher sack pushed the Packers out of field goal range, while linebacker Lance Briggs intercepted a low Rodgers pass which appeared to bounce off Donald Driver‘s foot to snuff out another opportunity inside the two-minute warning. However, they were unable to stop rookie running back James Starks capping a six-play, 44-yard drive with a battling four-yard run.

Rookie Shields had two key interceptions (image courtesy of packers.com)

14-0 down approaching half-time following Briggs’s interception, Chicago had one final chance to put points on the board, but Cutler’s underthrown deep ball was picked off by rookie cornerback Sam Shields.

The scoreline was, if anything, generous to the Bears. The Packers had outgained them 252-103 and registered 17 first downs to six, while Chicago had been unable to piece together any consistent threat. Most tellingly, of the two quarterbacks Rodgers had dealt better under pressure. He scrambled for 39 yards in the half and led two touchdown drives, whereas Cutler was visibly rattled by the Packers’ ability to apply both inside and outside pressure and unable to set his feet properly, causing him to throw off his back foot or over the heads of his receivers on several occasions.

Hanie inspires a fourth quarter comeback

The second half, however, was a different affair. The shift in momentum was subtle at first and not borne out on the scoreboard, but it was detectable nonetheless. After Urlacher intercepted Rodgers on third-and-goal on Green Bay’s first drive of the half – Rodgers himself chased back to make a touchdown-saving tackle – the Packers were unable to move the ball for the rest of the game, amassing just 50 further yards.

Starks, who had rushed for 55 yards before half-time, carried ten times for just 19 yards in the second half, while Rodgers was 7-of-15 passing. Urlacher was at the heart of the Bears’ defensive effort, finishing the game with ten tackles, a sack and an interception.

Offensive improvement, however, was a little longer in coming. Cutler led one three-and-out before leaving the game with a knee injury, and backup Todd Collins followed up with two more, completing none of his four passes, before being yanked in favour of third-stringer Caleb Hanie.

With Hanie under centre, the Bears’ offense suddenly came to life. Having amassed a meagre 132 yards through the first three quarters, they would accumulate 169 in the fourth. The third year quarterback – who has never started an NFL game and had only 14 career pass attempts prior to this one – completed both his throws on his first postseason possession, the second an inch-perfect strike to Johnny Knox which the wide receiver carried down to the Green Bay one, from where Chester Taylor punched the ball in to reduce the deficit to 14-7.

Raji rumbled 18 yards for the decisive score (image courtesy of packers.com)

The Bears’ defense held firm on the next two series, but as the clock ticked past the midway point of the fourth quarter Hanie’s inexperience showed. He hurried an ill-advised dump-off to Matt Forte which Raji, dropping off in shallow zone coverage, read superbly, stepping in front of Forte, snagging the ball and rumbling into the endzone to restore the Packers’ two-touchdown advantage. It was the first career interception and first touchdown for the defensive tackle – nicknamed ‘The Freezer’ – and it virtually put the game on ice.

Virtually, but not quite. Undeterred, Hanie completed four straight passes as the Packers dropped into deep coverage, the last a 35-yard score to Earl Bennett. With 4:43 left, Chicago were back within seven of tying the game. And after their defense forced yet another three-and-out, Hanie took over on his own 29 with 2:53 remaining.

The Packers’ secondary played a bit smarter this time. Working both the clock and field position to their advantage, they allowed Hanie to complete nickel-and-dime passes, eventually forcing a fourth-and-five situation where the young quarterback’s desperate heave into double coverage was picked off by Shields for his second interception.

It had been a brave effort by the passer and his youthful offense, but to no avail. The Packers had done just enough in the first half, capitalising on the Bears’ inability to move the football to establish a lead which Chicago’s inconsistent, error-prone offense was always going to struggle to claw back.

In defeat, third year back Matt Forte contributed 70 yards’ rushing and a team playoff record ten catches. Hanie was 13-of-20 passing for one touchdown, but critically also two interceptions. Until his arrival, the Bears struggled to offer much of an aerial threat, in particular proving unable to get the ball to their deep threats, with their receivers and tight end Greg Olsen combining for just one reception before the fourth quarter.

Super Bowl pointers

The Steelers will, however, have been encouraged by the way Chicago shut down the Green Bay offense in the second half with a more aggressive defensive scheme. Rodgers had enough time in the first half to deliver a series of 20-plus yard passes – with Jennings, who finished with eight catches for 130 yards, his main target – but when the Bears applied more up-front pressure in the second half, the Packers were unable to generate any yardage either in the air or on the ground. Pittsburgh will like the way Rashard Mendenhall and their 11th-ranked ground game stacks up against Green Bay’s 18th-ranked rushing defense.

All that, however, is two weeks away. In the meantime, the Packers have become the NFC’s tenth different conference champion in the last ten seasons, and only the second ever sixth-seeded team to reach the Super Bowl. Having won all three of their playoff games on the road against the NFC’s three top-ranked teams, they will have nothing to fear against Pittsburgh.

Previous 2010 NFL playoff articles

NFL wild-card playoffs: Manning shows why he isn’t the greatest ever

NFL divisional playoffs: Quarterbacks and defenses key to Conference finalists

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