CHICAGO – A season in which the Bears benefitted from playing against third-string quarterbacks couldn’t be saved by their own No. 3.
But Caleb Hanie’s gutsy performance in relief of an injured Jay Cutler and an ineffective Todd Collins was a reason why the Bears were driving with less than a minute to play and a chance to tie the NFC championship game. It would have been the most improbable of storylines in the 182nd meeting with the Packers.
Instead, Sam Shields intercepted Hanie at the 12-yard line and the Packers, the NFC’s sixth seed, advanced to Super Bowl XLV with a 21-14 victory.
In the 25th anniversary year of the Super Bowl XX Bears, this group didn’t have enough offense to pair with a championship-caliber defense. The addition of coordinator Mike Martz remains a good topic for debate, and his insistence on having the 39-year-old Collins ahead of Hanie on the depth chart was a head scratcher. Hanie is far more mobile, and Collins was a sitting target behind the offensive line.
On the biggest stage of his career, Cutler was awful. He completed 6 of 14 passes for 80 yards and was intercepted by Shields on an ill-advised shot toward the end zone to Johnny Knox just before halftime. The Bears were in position to cut into a 14-0 deficit. It turns out Cutler injured his left knee on the previous series. He came out for the first possession of the third quarter – a three-and-punt – and left for good.
“I kinda wish we had Jay in there the whole game the way things were going,” Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said.
Collins relieved Cutler and went three and out on both his possessions. Hanie replaced Collins with 57 seconds remaining in the third quarter and showed the kind of moxie he’s displayed in two preseasons. His first drive culminated on Chester Taylor’s 1-yard touchdown run to bring the Bears within 14-7 with 12:02 remaining. Hanie made a terrible throw to Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji, dropped in zone coverage, that the 337-pounder returned 18 yards for a touchdown. But the resilient Hanie needed only four plays to hit Earl Bennett for a 35-yard touchdown and the Bears were within a score with 4:43 left.
The defense, which righted itself after allowing a 1-yard touchdown run by Rodgers and a 4-yard touchdown run by James Starks on the Packers’ first four possessions, rose up and provided a chance.
“We had that post route called and you know the corner is going to undercut that,” Hanie said of the final pick. “Obviously, I don’t need to go there with the football.”
Had the Bears turned to Hanie at the start of the third quarter, perhaps the rally would have started earlier.
“Maybe,” safety Chris Harris said. “Who knows? I can’t go through the woulda, coulda, shouldas.”