Cutler was off target and out of sync, and the Chicago Bears simply ran out of magic Sunday, dropping the NFC championship game 21-14 to rival Green Bay at Soldier Field.
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It was a bitter ending for a team that appeared to be coming apart midway through the season, only to go on a big run that led to the NFC North title and a first-round playoff bye.
The sight of Cutler on the sideline after he was replaced early in the third quarter by Todd Collins sent a shiver through the crowd on a cold day. Then again, what happened before that wasn’t exactly warming them up.
The offense was sluggish and punchless all day.
It looked like offensive coordinator Mike Martz simply ran out of tricks against Dom Capers’ defense before third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie led a 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 sure seemed jittery. He forced passes, threw off his back foot and wound up going 6 for 14 with 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 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. It was not clear which knee he hurt or how it happened.
The seldom used Collins lasted two possessions before third-stringer Hanie came on, and that’s when the Bears got going.
An undrafted free agent out of Colorado State in 2008, he led the Bears on two fourth-quarter touchdown drives 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 teams 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.
Martz committed to the run and the Bears 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. He did just that, up until the biggest game of his career with a shot at making it to the Super Bowl.