CHICAGO — There was one Monster of the Midway in the NFC championship game and his name was Aaron Rodgers.
He wasn’t even at his best and, still, he was better than the first, the second and the third quarterback used in vain by the Chicago Bears against their bitter rivals.
Rodgers ran for a score and made a TD-saving tackle in leading the Green Bay Packers into the Super Bowl with a bone-jarring 21-14 victory Sunday over Chicago.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” Rodgers said. “I’m at a loss for words.”
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Rodgers played well enough to keep the Bears off balance all afternoon, Green Bay punter Tim Masthay kept Devin Hester under wraps, and the Packers’ superb defense took care of the rest in knocking the Bears out of the playoffs.
It was the 182nd meeting in the league’s most historic feud, and the stakes had never been bigger.
Now the Packers (13-6) are headed to Dallas. And no matter what happens in the Super Bowl on Feb. 6, the Packers and their fans hold ultimate bragging rights over their foes to the south.
Green Bay will play the Pittsburgh Steelers, who topped the New York Jets 24-19 in the AFC championship game.
The Packers opened as 21⁄2-point favorites for the game at Cowboys Stadium.
“We made a play to win the game and that’s all that matters,” Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. “Keep playing defense the way we know how, and it’s going to be tough for teams to beat us.”
All Jay Cutler could do was watch, having left the game with a knee injury early in the third quarter. Even before the injury, Cutler was having trouble moving the ball. Worse, he was getting booed by the home fans.
Primary backup Todd Collins replaced Cutler and was jeered even worse. Then little-known backup Caleb Hanie and the Bears (12-6) actually made it a game.
Chicago’s third-string quarterback rallied the Bears for a touchdown drive to cut the lead to 14-7 after Chester Taylor’s 1-yard scoring run early in the fourth quarter.
Hanie had a chance to tie the game after the Bears’ defense finally got a few stops, but he threw a ball straight to Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji, who lumbered 18 yards into the end zone for a touchdown to give the Packers a 21-7 lead.
But Hanie wasn’t finished. He threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Earl Bennett to again cut the lead to seven points with 4:43 left.
The Bears forced a punt and got the ball back with under 3 minutes left. Hanie drove the Bears to the Green Bay 29-yard line, then threw a fourth-down interception to Sam Shields — the rookie’s second of the game.Now all those Pro Bowl voters who didn’t think Rodgers was worthy can relax. They’re off the hook. Rodgers will be headed to the Super Bowl instead.
He threw for 244 yards with two interceptions — a disappointment, given how well he had played lately. But his play in the first half was good enough to put the Bears in a two-touchdown hole, boggling a good defense that suddenly seemed to fall for every play-action fake.
Steelers 24, Jets 19
PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger knelt on the turf and buried his head in an AFC championship shirt.“I’m going to enjoy this,” he later said.
No one had to ask what he meant.
A season that began with a four-game suspension is one win away from giving him a third Super Bowl victory.
His Pittsburgh Steelers hung on Sunday and won its third AFC championship in six years, 24-19 over the New York Jets.
Terrible Towels will wave again at the Super Bowl, where the Steelers will meet Green Bay after silencing Rex Ryan’s wild bunch. Look out Big D, here comes another Big D — in black and gold, and with an unmatched history of carrying off the Lombardi Trophy.
The defense, led by James Harrison, had a fumble return for a touchdown and a goal-line stand that shut down the Jets’ comeback in the fourth quarter. It set the tone for most of a frigid night at Heinz Field to end the Jets’ stunning postseason run. Ryan slammed down his headset when Antonio Brown caught a pass for a first down that allowed Pittsburgh to hang on and run out the clock.
“It’s not always pretty with us,” Roethlisberger said, “but we do the job. We have a lot of tenacity. We have a don’t quit attitude and mentality. Everybody is just always there for each other.”
The Steelers ended the Jets’ season with a dominant first half for a 24-3 lead. Rashard Mendenhall had 95 of his 121 yards and a touchdown.
“We played a good half. We never played a good game, and that was the difference,” Ryan said in a postgame interview with CBS. “You get to this point, you’ve got to play a great game against a great opponent and we played a good half and that was it.”
One more great game by Roethlisberger and his teammates and the season will end in a way hardly anyone could foresee back in September.
He sat out the season’s first four games for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy — an outgrowth of a college student’s accusations that he sexually assaulted her in Georgia last March. The quarterback was never prosecuted over what was the second such set of allegations against him.
Now he will lead the Steelers into their eighth Super Bowl, a game they handle pretty well — with a record six titles to show for it.
The cocky Jets seemed to have left everything they had in New England last Sunday. There was little trash talking all week and even less fire early in their biggest game since winning the championship 42 years ago. They haven’t been back to the Super Bowl.
The Steelers are regulars, including Super Bowl titles by the 2005 and 2008 teams, both led by Roethlisberger and a fierce defense sparked by playmaking safety Troy Polamalu.
New York (13-6) failed for the fourth time in the AFC title game since 1969, when the Jets won perhaps the most significant of all Super Bowls. It was a devastating finish, particularly after the Jets beat Peyton Manning and the Colts, then Tom Brady and the Patriots on the road to get to Pittsburgh.
Asked if he would change anything about this season, Ryan said, “I would change the outcome of this game and that’s the only thing I would change. We don’t need to apologize to anybody. We’ll be back, you’ll see.”