By Steve Ginsburg
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The resurgent and gritty Green Bay Packers earned a once-unthinkable trip to the Super Bowl by easing past the Chicago Bears 21-14 Sunday to claim the NFC championship.
Aaron Rodgers was not at his best but led the way for the Packers, completing 17 of 30 passes for 244 yards, while rushing for a score against one of the NFL's top defenses.
"It's a dream come true, it's an incredible feeling," said Rodgers, who was a back-up to Brett Favre for three years before becoming the starter. "I'm lost for words. You have got to give credit to their defense. I didn't play my best game."
The Packers won the last two games of the regular season to sneak into the playoffs as a wild card before reeling off road victories over East champion Philadelphia, NFC top seed Atlanta and the North-winning Bears.
Green Bay becomes the first number six seed from the NFC to advance to the title game since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format in 1990.
The Packers, widely seen as a favorite for the Super Bowl before injuries and erratic play appeared to doom their season, will play the Pittsburgh Steelers for the NFL championship on February 6 in Dallas.
Green Bay outgained the Bears 356-301 in total yards in a game that was not as close as it appeared, as Chicago dominated the fourth quarter while the Packers tried to hang on.
"There's a lot of disappointment in the locker room," said a dejected Bears head coach Lovie Smith. "I feel like we made progress with our program this year.
"Eventually, we'll put that ring on."
The NFL's longest and most bitter rivalry was one-sided in the early going, leaving the fans with little to cheer about and unable to keep warm as frigid temperatures and a biting wind swirled around sold-out Soldier Field.
Green Bay led 14-0 at the half, outgaining the Bears 252-103 and serving notice that this was not the same team that split with the Bears during the regular season.
Rodgers scored on a naked bootleg on the opening drive of the game, reaching the end zone on the left side before Bears safety Danieal Manning smacked him out of bounds.
The play capped a seven-play, 84-drive and set the tone for the game, the 182nd all-time meeting between the two rivals from the NFC North.
James Starks made it 14-0 with 11 minutes left on the opening half with a four-yard touchdown run over the right side, reaching out with the ball to just reach the goal line.
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was removed from the game in the third quarter with a knee injury and replaced with veteran Todd Collins.
Cutler, who was brilliant in his playoff debut in last week's 35-24 victory over Seattle, was harassed by the Packers all afternoon and completed six of 14 passes for 80 yards.
Collins, a 16-year veteran, was unable to rally the Bears and misfired on all four passes before he was replaced by Caleb Hanie, a little-known third-stringer who had attempted only 14 passes in his NFL career.
With Hanie at the helm, Chester Taylor scored on a one-yard plunge off right tackle with 12:02 left in regulation to trim the Packers' lead to 14-7.
Green Bay iced the game when nose tackle B.J. Raji stepped in front of Matt Forte and intercepted a Hanie pass, running 18 yards for a score to give the Packers a 21-7 lead.
Chicago's last gasp came four plays later when Hanie hit Earl Bennett on a 35-yard touchdown to trim the Bears' deficit to 21-14 with just under five minutes left.
Hanie finished with 13 completions in 20 attempts for 153 yards, but was unable to mount a game-tying drive.
On fourth and five from the Packers' 29, Sam Shields picked off a Hanie pass with 37 seconds to go, igniting a Packers celebration on the sideline.
"It's one of those 'oops' types of things where you don't see a guy and he just pops at the last season," Hanie said of Shields' pickoff.
The Packers will be playing in their first Super Bowl since losing to the Denver Broncos 31-24 following the 1997 season.
"Everybody stepped up and played the way they were supposed to play and that's what you have to have," said Packers receiver Donald Driver. "The comfort level hasn't been big since March and it's not going to change.
"We have four more quarters to go and we have to put that ring on our finger."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)