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NFC title game grades: Pack-Bears

Grading out the performances from Green Bay's historic 21-14 win at Chicago in the NFC Championship Game ...

Quarterback: Jay Cutler was replaced in the third quarter by Todd Collins, who played with the President Gerald Ford at the University of Michigan in 1933. OK, that's not true. But Collins did enter Michigan more than two decades ago. And the fact that Chicago's hopes were placed, albeit briefly, on his 39-year-old shoulders perfectly symbolized the QB frustrations of an organization that still counts Sid Luckman as its all-time leading passer (14,686 yards).

Collins was a disaster in his two drives (0 for 4, two passes nearly picked) and was replaced by Caleb Hanie, a second-year player with 14 career attempts. Hanie nearly saved the day for Chicago with two scoring drives, including a 35-yard TD pass to Earl Bennett, the longest play for either team. But his pick-six (B.J. Raji) proved to be the difference in the game, and his final desperation pass on fourth down was intercepted by Sam Shields.

The official word is that Cutler had a knee injury. But quarterbacks have been benched for similar efforts in big games (6 of 14, 80 yards, 1 INT), including two first-half passes in which he overthrew Devin Hester for a possible game-changing touchdown. Grade: D-

Running Backs: Matt Forte was the lone offensive bright spot for the Bears before Hanie entered the game and provided a spark. Forte easily led the team in both rushing (70 yards) and receiving (10 catches for 90 yards) and ran hard all day. Chester Taylor touched the ball just four times, but made 'em count: He scored a 1-yard touchdown, converted a 4th and 1 on Chicago's final drive and caught one pass for 12 yards. Grade: B+

Receivers: The entire Chicago receiving corps -- including tight ends -- had combined for one catch for 24 yards (Johnny Knox) through three quarters. But Hanie connected with Knox for 32 yards to set up the team's first touchdown in the fourth quarter, and then Earl Bennett caught a 35-yard touchdown. Both plays were the two longest by either team. Overall, though, it was a very tough day for Chicago's pass-catchers. Grade: C+

Offensive Line: The Bears struggled through the 2010 season with the worst offensive line in football. So, relatively speaking, the unit acquitted itself fairly well against one of the league's best pass-rushing defenses. They yielded two sacks, while helping lead the Bears to 83 rushing yards on 24 attempts (3.5 YPA). It wasn't great. But considering the way Chicago's front five was overmatched much of the season, it could have been worse. Grade: C

Defensive Line: The stat sheet says that Chicago's defensive line failed to produce a single sack. But their pressure was a big reason why Aaron Rodgers lost his rhythm in the second half. Julius Peppers appeared to have a great shot at a knockout blow on Rodgers with more than 11 minutes to play. But Peppers, Chicago's prized acquisition in the offseason, was whistled for roughing the passer with a clear helmet-to-helmet hit. Rodgers was shaken up on the play, but did not leave the field. But it was very much a non-impact day by Chicago's highly touted defensive front. Grade: C-

Linebackers: Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs played like the leaders of one of the NFL's best defenses. Briggs twice came up with big plays when the game could have got out of hand. He squared up in the hole nicely and took down James Starks, one-on-one, on 3rd and 1 late in the second quarter, forcing a Packers punt. On Green Bay's next drive, he was Briggsy On The Spot, racing in to lift a misfired pass (Rodgers) and mishandled ball (Donald Driver) for an interception. Urlacher led all players with 10 tackles, registered an early sack and then gobbled up an INT near his own goal line, thanks to a poorly thrown ball by Rodgers. He returned it 39 yards to the Chicago 45. The Green Bay offense struggled to find a groove after first drive, and Urlacher and Briggs were big reasons why. Grade: A-

Defensive Backs: Tim Jennings was whistled for a questionable pass interference halfway through third quarter, giving the Packers first down at the Bears' 9. He was called again in the fourth quarter, this time more obviously interfering with Driver and helping move Green Bay to midfield. The unit had little answer for Greg Jennings (8 catches, 130 yards) early in the game. But safeties Chris Harris and Danieal Manning were among the team leaders with five and six tackles, respectively. Grade: B-

Special Teams: The Bears were pinned inside the 5 by a Green Bay punt late in the first quarter. Rod Wilson made it even worse, when he was called for holding on the play, moving the ball inside the 2. Robbie Gould was not given a single field goal opportunity, and punter Brad Maynard was easily outshined by his Green Bay counterpart, Tim Masthay. Return specialist Devin Hester, considered by many to be an X-factor, proved to be a non-factor. Grade: C

Coaching: Lovie Smith was a couple plays away of being the first NFC coach since Mike Holmgren (1997) to take his team to two Super Bowls. Holmgren did it with Brett Favre at the absolute peak of his Hall of Fame career. Smith did it with Rex Grossman in 2006 and nearly walked into Dallas with Caleb Hanie this year. Mike Martz was supposed to be the mastermind that would solve the Bears' decades-long quarterbacking problems. But at the end of the day, he didn't have another Kurt Warner to carry out the plan on the field. Quite frankly, the Bears made the most with their limited talent on offense. Grade: B+

Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers looked like he'd continue his lofty postseason form on the game's first drive. He completed 4 of 4 passes for 76 yards and then scored on a 1-yard naked bootleg around left end. But the rest of his day was not nearly as sharp. Rodgers was picked twice, including a terrible throw deep in Chicago territory, into the waiting arms of Brian Urlacher, who was simply floating in the middle of the defense near the goal line. The pick gave the Bears a spark when Rodgers could've delivered a knockout blow. The quarterback misfired time and again in the second half, as the Green Bay offense sputtered against one of the league's best defenses. But he was also the club's second-leading ball carrier (7 for 39, 1 TD). Grade: C+

Running Backs: Starks continued his role as late-season workhorse, leading all players with 22 carries for 74 yards, including a 4-yard TD run in the second quarter. The Packers, however, appear to have few other options remaining at the position, and must hope that Starks stays healthy for one more game. Grade: B

Receivers: The Packers had a chance to go up 21-0 at the end of the first half, but Driver booted a shoe-top-high throw into the air. It was picked off by Briggs for the game's first turnover. Driver was held to one catch for 9 yards. Andrew Quarless could have hauled in a big gainer on third down, when the game was still in doubt in the fourth quarter. But he let the ball slip through his fingers. Grade: C+

Offensive Line: The Packers surrendered one sack (Urlacher) early in the game, and only because Chicago's Pro Bowl linebacker came looping wide around Green Bay's left side and should have been picked up by a back. But Rodgers was pressured repeatedly, and nearly knocked out by Peppers late in the game. The Pack pounded out 120 yards on 32 rush attempts, a workmanlike average of 3.8 yards per carry. A solid but unspectacular day. Grade: B

Defensive Line: Cullen Jenkins was a dominant force up front and probably Green Bay's defensive player of the game in the first half. He combined with Clay Matthews to sack Cutler on 3rd and 6 late in first quarter. And he nearly tackled Forte for a safety early in the second quarter, forcing the Bears to punt from deep in own territory. But beefy nose tackle B.J. Raji stole the show in the fourth quarter, with an 18-yard pick-six that provided to be the game-winner, followed by a swiveled-hip dance in the end zone. But the D-Line was also gashed for a couple nice runs. And, after sacking Cutler nine times in two games in the regular season, did not have as much success in the NFC title game. Grade: B+

Linebackers: Matthews combines with Jenkins to sack Cutler in the first quarter. He also stayed step for step with Olsen on a deep pattern late in the second quarter, forcing Olsen to play defender and knock the ball away. Chicago's receivers had a big day last week against Seattle, but were a non-factor this week, thanks to the likes of Matthews. Desmond Bishop was the team's top tackler (8 total) in the middle. Grade: B

Defensive Backs: Sam Shields was Green Bay's biggest playmaker on either side of the ball. He blitzed and sacked Cutler just before the first two-minute warning, forcing a fumble that Forte recovered for an 8-yard loss. He went step for step with Knox on the next drive, hauling in a Cutler pass near the goal line at the end of the first half. He also picked off Hanie on Chicago's final desperation drive. The Green Bay secondary did benefit from some Cutler misfires: They were twice beaten deep by speedy Devin Hester in the first half, but Cutler simply overthrew him both times. Grade: A-

Special Teams: Masthay might have been the star of the day in what proved to be an old-fashioned defensive struggle. He was brilliant with his short punts, repeatedly dropping kicks inside the 10 (and five of eight inside the 20). His first punt was pinned by Brandon Underwood inside the Chicago 5 late in the first quarter, and a penalty on blocker Rod Wilson placed the ball inside the 2. Masthay's second punt landed perfectly inside the 5, but bounced backwards to the 11 before any Packers could stop it. In the fourth quarter, Jarrett Bush planted himself on the goal line to stop another perfectly placed Masthay punt, but the Bears (in a questionable call) were given the ball at the 20. Another fourth quarter punt, midway through the frame, went out of bounds at the Bears 10. Grade: A-

Coaching: The Packers have won five straight elimination games and became the first No. 6 seed to win an NFC title. Included in that stretch are two wins over the archrival Bears. Green Bay, at least statistically, was much better than its 10-6 record indicated. And Mike McCarthy finally appears to have the team playing up to its talents -- in a seaason that included embarrassing losses to Washington, Miami and Detroit.

McCarthy will need a better -- and more consistent -- game plan in the Super Bowl. After all, his Packers were a few plays away from blowing a 14-0 fourth-quarter lead and losing to a third-string QB. But for now, McCarthy joins Mike Holmgren and Vince Lombardi as the three coaches to lead Green Bay to a Super Bowl. Grade: B

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