The N.F.C. championship game between the Bears and their bitter division rivals from was billed as a marquee matchup featuring two gunslinging quarterbacks. But after an ineffectual first half, Cutler spent all but one series of the second half of the Bears’ 21-14 loss bundled up on the sideline, a helpless bystander to his Green Bay counterpart Aaron Rodgers’s coronation.
Cutler said he sustained a left knee injury in the first half, probably on the first play after the two-minute warning when he was sacked by the rookie cornerback Sam Shields, who forced a fumble that the Bears recovered.
Before halftime, Cutler returned and threw two passes, a completion to Matt Forte and an interception by Shields. Cutler played the first series of the third quarter before being replaced by Todd Collins.
“Last series I really aggravated it,” Cutler said, adding, “It hurt.”
The decision to sit, he said, was made by the team’s medical staff. “I was going to keep playing,” Cutler said, adding, “Gave it a go in that first series but couldn’t really plant and throw, so they kind of pulled me.”
At his locker, Cutler said in a voice that was barely audible, “It’s disappointing I couldn’t give it a shot.”
Nearly saving the day was , a third-year player out of Colorado State who threw seven passes in the regular season. Hanie, 25, replaced the 39-year-old Collins, who was unable to convert a first down in two series.
Despite getting few repetitions at practices, Hanie completed 13 of 20 passes for 153 yards and touchdown. He was also intercepted twice.
“He’s a good player,” Cutler said. “We knew that if we gave him a shot, he’d play well. He can move. He’s got a great understanding of this offense. I was proud of him.”
If it had been up to him, Cutler said, he would have taken all the snaps. He said he felt confident that he would be able to play the second half.
Bears Coach Lovie Smith thought otherwise. “Went in and worked on him a little bit at the half,” he said. “But he came out, he just couldn’t go. Team, doctors and all, there was no decision really. He was injured.”
The Bears did Cutler no favors by issuing a statement in the press box that he had a knee injury and that his return was questionable, instead of stating that the medical staff had ruled out a return. Pressed about Cutler’s injury, Smith did not try to hide his exasperation behind his usual vanilla delivery.
“Hey, guys, he hurt his knee and he was out, all right,” Smith said, his voice rising. “There’s nothing else for me to tell you on that. I don’t know exactly when it happened. He couldn’t go and that was that. Let’s go to some other questions.”
Smith should have been prepared for the questions. He had essentially invited them by framing Sunday’s showdown as “a quarterback’s game,” saying it was all about “standing in the pocket, taking a couple of hits if you have to, just being that leader that the teams sees is out front making plays.”
When Cutler was sidelined by a hit that nobody could immediately pinpoint, it raised eyebrows. The Internet was filled with people, including some on their accounts, questioning his toughness.
Bears tight end Greg Olsen said: “If there was any way he could have played, there’s no question he would have. He tried to fight through it. Obviously he didn’t feel like he could go on, so we had to move on to the next guy. It’s definitely hard.”
Olsen added, “I’m sure he was heartbroken.”
Hanie engineered two fourth-quarter scoring drives, the second of which culminated in a 35-yard pass to Earl Bennett. He was intercepted by Shields in the final minute after bringing the Bears 29 yards from the tying touchdown.
Cutler completed 6 of 14 passes for 80 yards. In the first half, he failed to convert a third down as the Bears fell behind, 14-0. He spent most of the second half trying to stay out of his teammates’ way. At one point in the third quarter, he was chased off a bench by Charles Tillman and the rest of the Bears’ defensive backs, who needed to get off their feet after trying to slow Rodgers’s march to XLV in Texas.
Asked what it was like to be reduced to a spectator in the biggest game of his career, Cutler said, “It’s a lonely feeling.” He added: “To get to this point and have an opportunity, it’s just hard. Some of the shots I took earlier in the year I was able to bounce back, and then to be in the situation where all this happened, it’s just tough.”
After the crowd around him dispersed, Cutler turned and faced his locker. His eyes grew watery as he took his time buttoning his purple jacket.
Cutler’s car was parked inside the tunnel and he walked to it slowly, his left leg as stiff as his upper lip.