Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The (Soldier) Field of Dreams

I am a little late in doing this, but I wanted to write a post about my experience at the NFC Championship Bears-Packers Game. Hey, better late than never.

I was one of the lucky few that got to witness my beloved Packers take on their arch rival (and the oldest rivalry in pro football) the Chicago Bears in an NFC Championship Game. The last time these two teams met in the playoffs was in 1941. That's how rare this occasion was. Truly, a once in a generation occurrence. Thanks my bro, Chander for giving me this opportunity, even though I was/am a Packer fan. Thanks man!

Packers - Bears NFC Championship Game kick off
On game day Sunday (January 23rd 2011), the two of us were getting ourselves prepared for the game. It was going to be a cold day. And when I say cold, I mean cold! Well below freezing point. And yeah, the wind chill factor in Chicago was going to make it exponentially worse. Chander, who grew up there and who has been going to Bears games since like forever, knew what to do. Taking tips from him, I got myself into layers of clothes; and when I say layers, I mean like five; including some Packer gear. So much so, even for my hands, I had two separate layers of gloves. In short, I felt like Randy (Ralphie's brother) from "A Christmas Story".

To avoid all the traffic and parking mayhem, we decided to cab it to Soldier Field (just a couple miles away). But before that, apart from all the external protection to combat the cold, we stopped by D4 Pub to down a few drinks to keep us warm from the inside. I badly needed it (Did I mention it was cooooold?). Of course, on the way, I was heckled at by many on the streets. Hmm...maybe it was because I was wearing Packer gear in downtown Chicago. Who knows? (wink wink).

Then a couple hours before kick off, we took a cab to Soldier Field. On the way, of course we were talking about the game. Both of us were real anxious. I sincerely thought the hot streak for the Packers might run out of gas. Especially, given the way the Bears have been playing the Packers of late. While I was expressing those "half glass empty" feelings, Chander, on the other hand, seemed cautiously optimistic. After all, the Bears were playing at home and were well rested with two bye weeks. (Sorry Seattle Seahawks, I count the Seahawks-Bears Divisional Round Game as a bye. You need the other team to show up for a real game). As expected, we had to get off a little far away from the Stadium; a good 25-30 minutes walk (yup, and in the cold).

As we were getting closer to the Stadium, obviously we were were walking along with more and more people. And it was rather encouraging to see some Green and Gold clad folks out there. We tussled our way into Soldier Field through the crowd, past the security check. Got ourselves some beer (again, it was freezing) and headed to our seats (at the North end zone side). Yeah, there were a few Packer fans here and there, but I was surrounded by raucous Bear fans on all sides. None more loud and passionate than my bro.

In spite of the cold, and the intimidating, yet beautiful sight of frozen Lake Michigan, my mind zoned into one thing. It was the guys on the field. Even though I was very much aware about where I was and what I was about to witness, the enormity of the occasion just dawned on me (in fact it hit me real hard right in my head). My Packers were in the NFC Title game playing the Bears for a shot at the Super Bowl! I was right there looking at my beloved Packers. My heroes were right there warming up in their White and Gold unis, while the introductions were on. I would not have even noticed the National Anthem being sung, but for the fact that it was Jim Cornelison, the voice of the National Anthem at all Blackhawks games (Video below of a clip from the game).

And of course the military Jets made a fly by right after that. Oh and the crowd was loud. Playoff atmosphere. Rivalry fever. Whatever you want to call it. It was LOUD!

Game on!

The Bears won the toss, and to everyone's surprise, deferred it to the Packers. The Packers, as everyone now knows, started fast and took a 7-0 lead, with Aaron Rodgers scoring a rushing TD on the first drive. After that both offenses struggled a bit, punting a couple times, sometimes even opting to punt instead of long field goals (Could you blame them?... it was really cold!). Early in the second quarter, again the Packers got onto a strong offensive rhythm, capping a short 44-yard drive with a 4 yard TD run by Starks. 14-0 Packers.

By then the crowd was taken out of the game. They were pretty effective until then, especially on 3rd downs, they would go real loud. Maybe that had something to do with the Packers not converting a 3rd down till towards the end of the first half.

Just when the Packers seemed to be cruising down the field again. They just passed mid-field inside the final two minutes of the half, when the most unluckiest of Interceptions possible happens. A low throw from Rodgers bounces of the boots of Donald Driver right into the hands of Lance Briggs. Turnover. Possible change of the tide. But then, just two snaps later, Cutler returns the favor throwing a ball in the vicinity of Sam Shields; who seemed like he could make no mistake that day. Interception. A knee to end the quarter without any damage.

You could sense a lull in the crowd by then The Bears were down 14-0. The music of ex-American Idol star Lee DeWyze (a Chicago Native), could not blow much life into the crowd. the bright side of things for the Bears fans was that, in spite of such a huge statistical domination by the Packers, they were down by just two scores. Game was far from over. Everyone knew that. I think they could sense that uneasiness in the face of Packer fans.

But the dormant crowd would explode to its feet in the third quarter, when the Packers (with the help of a defensive pass interference call in their favor) were inside the Bears 5 yard line. On 3rd down, instead of throwing away the ball or taking a sack, Rodgers would make an ill-advised throw down the middle, right between the "4" and "5" on Brian Urlacher's Jersey. Urlacher not only made the catch, but was on his way to the house, just when Rodgers made a shoe string tackle, that somehow (still, in spite of so many replays on video, no one knows how) brought down Urlacher. It was probably the play of the day for Rodgers saving a sure shot TD there. Still, it brought the crowd back into the game.

On a side note here, I was wearing just my inner layer glove till that point and just before that 3rd down snap, I thought it was about time to wear the other pair of gloves. Although it felt like it could never get colder, it was indeed getting colder. When I had my right outer glove on, and as I paused to see the 3rd down snap, Rodgers threw that Interception. That was it. I was confident it was my gloves that jinxed the game. So I took that right glove back off and, believe it or not, wore just my inner glove lining for the rest of the game (and it was <20F at that point).

After the INT the place was LOUD again. In all the hoopla, it took us (at least me and the people around me) a couple snaps to figure out that the guy under Center for the Bears was not Jay Cutler, but was No.11, Todd Collins. People were confused until word passed around (thanks to someone with a radio) that Cutler was out with an Injury. It didn't take long for Collins to frustrate the crowd again with his gawd-awful throws. Fortunately for them (not me) the Packers offense was not doing any better, going three and out a bunch of times themselves.

By the time, Collins threw his final pass of the game for him, Bears fans were already murmuring around; some even loudly screaming for Caleb Hannie. Long behold, Caleb Hannie was trotting out there for the final two snaps of the third quarter. This is when things seemed to be heading down south for Packer fans. The Packers Defense seemed to be in prevent mode, letting Hannie complete passes at will and Forte suddenly running his way to first downs at will. The Bears, led by Hannie, promptly drove 67 yards down the field to score a TD, making it a one score game (14-7). Now the crowd was really in it. For the first time since the Urlacher INT.

After this each team punted to each other a couple of times. Got to drop an acknowledgment here about the great defensive play by both sides, which was overshadowed by all the weirdness all game long. But the crowd was not pleased with some of the penalties called on the Bears (Surprise!). They got most annoyed when successively, a 15-yard helmet to helmet hit was called on Peppers when he launched onto Rodgers, followed by a pass interference call no the defense on the very next play. The penalties although, did not result in any points.

Now, Hannie had the ball at the Chicago 15-yard line. It was third down with a few ticks over six minutes left in the game. All I saw on the play was Hannie drop back, make a throw which seemed like a slant to his left. And ball went right to a big body. Who was it? yup, it was BJ Raji or as he calls himself: "the Freezer"1. What was the 338 pounder doing in coverage? And to add insult to injury, he takes it home for pick-6!

Here's video of his INT return. The video also includes a funny "re-mix" version of his celebration dance (Yes, he danced!) at the 1:56 minute mark of the clip. (Must Watch!)

The game now 21-7 with only six minutes left. You would have thought that was the dagger. (I did). But hold on folks. The vaunted Packer defense allows Caleb Hannie to drive the field in four plays, covering 60 yards to pull within seven again. And get this all within 1:24 minutes. So still 4:43 left in the one-score game. The uneasiness in Packer fans only increased. And on the TD play, it seemed like a mis-communication between Nick Collins and Charles Woodson (of all people) that led to the score.

The Packers wisely decided to run on first down. Fine! Good decision in calling a running play on 2nd down again. But inexplicably, Starks runs out of bounds behind the line of scrimmage. (yeah he was pushed out, but he should have been wary enough to make sure he fell in bounds to keep the clock running). Ominous sign! The fans were overjoyed. On third down and long, Rodgers wisely, runs around and scrambles for a gain of one yard or so; most importantly, he stayed in bounds. The Bears now had the ball, potentially for the last time. They started from their own 29-yard line and had to score a TD to tie the game. 2:53 left on the clock.

The Bears convert a 3rd down and then a 4th and 1, driving all the way upto the GB 27. That churn in the belly was getting more and more violent. Darn it! This could end up being one of the all time choke jobs ever. Packer fans would have to suffer through the pain every time this would be played on ESPN Classic in years to come. All if the Bears somehow managed to pull this out.

Fortunately for Packer fans, this was when Mike Martz decided to get cute with the play calling. Coming off a time out, on 3rd and 3 he calls a WR end around, which is cleanly busted by the Packers defense. Now, it was 4th and 4. 48 seconds left. This was the game! Hannie steps back to make a throw to his left (again) and Sam Shields, knowing he has help up top, dives in front of the receiver and makes the potential game winning INT. That sucked all the energy out of the crowd, while the Packer fans, though relatively way smaller in number started getting loud. It was nervous moment though when Sam Shield ran with the ball after the INT. Me and a lot of Packer fans in the crowd; even the entire GB sideline all were shouting "Get down, u fool!". The last thing you need there is a fumble and giving Hannie another chance. (I still don't believe I just said that last sentence. Caleb Hannie of all people!). After a Rodgers kneel down, game over!

The Packers are in the Super Bowl! The Packers are in the Super Bowl! Can't say it enough times...... The Packers are in the Super Bowl!

Of course the dejected crown started emptying in a hurry. But another wave of people were descending the stairs heading to the field level, including yours truly. It was time for all Packer faithfuls to celebrate. Here are a few clips of video I shot. You can hear the "Go Pack Go!" chants.


After a while, we made our way out of Soldier Field. To avoid the crowd, we took a few short cuts walking on snow and even slippery ice at some places. Then cut across through the premises of the Field Museum next door. That was followed by a long walk before we could catch another cab to head home. All in the darn cold. Only, after the the Packer win, I didn't feel the cold. The cold was not such a bad thing. It was more than worth my witnessing of the Packers earning a trip to the Super Bowl.

Now, its Super Bowl XLV, or die!

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