Stifling defense carries Packers

One of the NFL’s most acclaimed rivalries, one that has spanned 182 games and entire generations of followers but is separated by only 175 miles of Midwest real estate, came down Sunday to what a third-string quarterback for the desperate home team could muster against one of the NFL’s hottest defenses.

A collision for the ages in the NFC Championship Game launched the sixth-seeded Green Bay Packers to Super Bowl XLV against the AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers thanks to a breath-stealing 21-14 victory over the Chicago Bears at frigid Soldier Field.

In advancing to the Super Bowl, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers finally escaped the shadow of Brett Favre’s back-to-back Super Bowl appearances in the 1996 and ’97 seasons that always threatened to bury him under the weight of similar lofty expectations.

Now it’s Rodgers’ turn to wear a conference championship cap, and this is his long-awaited chance to deliver the ultimate prize to a devoted fan base that was slow to forget Favre but has now come to embrace Rodgers. And Rodgers is intent on giving Green Bay another Lombardi Trophy.

“This looks pretty good to me right here,” Rodgers said, twirling the NFC Champions cap in his hands. “I’ve wanted to wear one of these for a long time. I’m telling you, this is just the most amazing feeling.”

The Packers are the first NFC No. 6 seed to reach the Super Bowl, and they did it without Rodgers — considered the NFL’s hottest quarterback in the postseason with six touchdown passes and no interceptions entering Sunday’s contest — playing his finest football.

Rodgers, in fact, showed his first postseason flaws with two interceptions. But despite taking a brutal fourth-quarter blow to his helmet’s earhole from Bears defensive end Julius Peppers that left Rodgers’ lower lip in shreds, he completed 17 of 30 passes for 244 yards and added a rushing touchdown.

“I was spitting up some blood,” Rodgers said of the shot from Peppers, which drew a 15-yard roughing-the-passer penalty. “But believe me, I’m just fine.”

The same can’t be said of his close friend, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who left the game early in the third quarter with a knee injury. While Cutler stood on the sideline and watched with the Packers leading 14-0, veteran No. 2 Todd Collins was completely ineffective in two drives.

The call ultimately went to third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie. Judging by how he clearly outplayed the No. 2 QB, a guy with 13 more years of NFL experience to his credit, Bears coach Lovie Smith was questioned why he didn’t go to Hanie — the emergency quarterback — rather than Collins. The decision ultimately left both Cutler and Collins unable to return.

“Todd has been our backup quarterback for a while. . . . It’s not like there is a big difference, that’s why we went to Caleb fairly quickly,” Smith said. “But Todd was our 2, we went with our 2, didn’t like that. Felt like we needed to go a different direction and we did.”

And while Hanie led the Bears on two scoring drives — tossing a 35-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Earl Bennett with 4 minutes, 43 seconds remaining to throw Green Bay a little off-kilter — the Packers’ physical defense stood its ground and did more than its part to secure this victory.

“He surprised us, only because we hadn’t seen anything from him on film,” cornerback Tramon Williams said of Hanie.

But the Packers soon figured out Hanie. Second-year nose tackle B.J. Raji hauled in a Hanie pass intended for running back Matt Forte with his left hand and rumbled his 337-pound body 18 yards into the end zone with 6:04 remaining to give Green Bay a 21-7 lead.

“That was a corner blitz,” Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers said, “where we brought Sam Shields up, and B.J. steps into the line to try to use up a block, and then pops out into the throwing lane. And it worked well.”

The Packers’ speed rush and blitz package out of their 3-4 scheme bottled up Forte (17 carries, 70 yards) and kept every Bears quarterback on the run while forcing three interceptions.

Chicago avoided throwing the ball in the directing of Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson, which left Shields — the nickel cornerback – in position to make game-breaking plays. He picked off Hanie with 37 seconds remaining to end the Bears’ season.

Before that, Shields sacked Cutler in the second quarter, forcing a fumble on third down. He went after Cutler again on the next series, intercepting a pass meant for Johnny Knox at the Packers’ 3-yard line.

“I came in with a chip on my shoulder,” said Shields, an undrafted rookie free agent from the University of Miami. “The first thing I was thinking about was just making the team, and opportunities came open and I took advantage of them.”

That pretty much sums up the Packers’ 2010 playoff run.

Playing in bitterly cold conditions in its rival’s stadium, Green Bay called up every bit of the backbone that helped this team collect earlier road playoff victories against the Eagles and the Falcons.

“It’s challenged our character,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think we’ve really grown up through it. Our players truly believe that we will be successful in Dallas.”

And while Rodgers might be the marquee figure heading into Super Bowl XLV week in Dallas-Fort Worth, Packers linebacker Clay Matthews wanted everyone to take note: “It seems defense has put these last three games away.

“We had our backs against the wall a little bit, but we made the play to win the game. That’s ultimately what matters.”

It has mattered since Week 17, when the Packers had to beat the Bears just to reach the postseason. Now they’re taking their fortitude to the NFL’s ultimate stage. And Green Bay — the little town 175 miles north of mighty Chicago — is counting on that grit to bring a fourth Super Bowl title to the place that claimed the first one in 1967.