CHICAGO – The Chicago Bears were rallying behind a young quarterback, forcing the Green Bay Packers to sweat out what looked like an easy win with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
No, it wasn't Jay Cutler leading the charge.
The quarterback with the rocket arm was off target and out of sync even before he left with a knee injury, and the Bears couldn't overcome a sluggish start in dropping the NFC championship game 21-14 to rival Green Bay at Soldier Field.
"It's a lonely feeling," said Cutler, who sat out most of the second half. "Go through training camp and everything else and get to this point and have an opportunity to get in the Super Bowl, it's hard."
It looked like offensive coordinator Mike Martz simply ran out of tricks against Dom Capers' defense before third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie led a fourth-quarter comeback bid.
Then again, what could Martz do with his starter like performing like this?
Not since high school had Cutler led a winning team, and in his first NFC championship game, he forced passes, threw off his back foot and wound up going 6 for 14 for 80 yards and an interception. It was a sharp contrast from the previous game against Seattle, when Cutler joined Otto Graham as the only quarterbacks to throw for two touchdowns and run for two in a playoff game.
He was on the sideline after the opening drive in the second half with an unspecified knee injury and the Bears trailing 14-0. Todd Collins came in and the Bears went nowhere, so in came Hanie.
Cutler said the injury happened on the Bears' final possession of the second quarter before he threw an interception. He played the rest of the half and tried to go back in the third, but aggravated it.
"We gave it a go that first series but I couldn't really plant and throw, so they kind of pulled me," said Cutler, who's scheduled for an MRI on Monday.
He was asked what he was told by his coaches when he couldn't return and said: "I knew that it was probably better that I didn't. I knew my knee, I know my body."
Veteran center Olin Kreutz said he saw Cutler's knee shaking when he returned to the huddle after taking a hit to the outside of his leg and knew the quarterback was in trouble. He was surprised, actually, that Cutler stayed in the game and even more stunned when he came out for the third quarter.
"It was shaking right after he took the hit and walked back into the huddle," Kreutz said. "It was swinging. I knew that one of his ligaments probably went."
With Cutler on the sideline, the Soldier Field crowd grew even more quiet and the injury prompted unkind speculation from other players on their Twitter pages.
Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew wrote: "All I'm saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee ... I played the whole season on one."
And this from Deion Sanders: "Im telling u in the playoffs u must drag me off the field. All the medicine in pro lockerooms this dude comes out! I apologize bear fans! . . . Folks i never question a players injury but i do question a players heart."
Cutler's teammates don't.
"He doesn't complain when he gets hit," linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "He goes out there and plays his (expletive) off every Sunday, he practices every single day, so no, we don't question his toughness."
Kreutz lashed out at the critics, saying, Maybe they should shut up."
As for losing Cutler, he said, "It deflates you. ... You're very deflated when you first hear it, and then you get going."
The Bears didn't get going under the seldom-used Collins. He lasted two possessions before third-stringer Hanie came on and that's when it got interesting.
An undrafted free agent out of Colorado State in 2008, he led the Bears to two fourth-quarter touchdowns but also got picked off twice. B.J. Raji returned the first 18 yards for a touchdown, and Sam Shields sealed the win with an interception in the final minute.
These teams had met 181 times and never had the stakes been higher. Only once had they played in the postseason, with the Bears winning at Wrigley Field in 1941, a week after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
The odds that the Bears would even reach the playoffs this year seemed slim at best after they dropped three of four before their off week — an ominous sign for coach Lovie Smith, who was given orders to improve or else by ownership before the season. They were 4-3 and Cutler was getting knocked around like a human tackling dummy, but they used their time off well.
The Bears committed to the run and won seven of eight before dropping the regular-season finale at Green Bay.
Along the way, Cutler seemed to answer critics who questioned whether he was capable of leading a winner. His teammates stuck by him, too.
"We really have nothing to hang our heads about," linebacker Lance Briggs said. "Hats off to the Packers, they'll represent the NFC very well. Next year, the Chicago Bears will have their day."