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The last Bears playoff QB: Caleb Hanie nearly a hero vs. Pack in NFC title game

It’s the duty of any back-up quarterback to be prepared to come in cold. But when Caleb Hanie got the call in the NFC Championship Game against the Packers in 2011, he came in colder than he would have liked.

“I think I found out right before the Packers were about to punt to us,” said Hanie, who actually was the Bears’ No. 3 quarterback behind Jay Cutler and Todd Collins that day. “They were punting, or about to punt and it was like, ‘Hey, Caleb, you’re gonna be in — go get your helmet.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, shoot guys, I could have been warming up for the last three plays.’ It’s three degrees outside or whatever, so it would have been nice to get a little more warmed up.”

But as a well-prepared back-up who spent the week practicing like he was the starter, Hanie was ready for his big moment in the final minute of the third quarter, with the Bears trailing 14-0. He replaced Collins, who was ineffective in a brief stint as a replacement for the injured Cutler and nearly rallied the Bears to an unlikely tie.

Against a Packers defense that had held the Bears to zero points and 80 passing yards through three quarters, Hanie completed 13-of-20 passes for 153 yards in the fourth quarter and led two touchdown drives. He gave one back on a pick-6 by Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji. And after responding with a 35-yard touchdown pass to Earl Bennett to get the Bears within a touchdown again, a valiant effort ended in disappointment when Hanie was intercepted by Sam Shields at the Packers 12-yard line with 37 seconds left in a 21-14 loss that sent the Packers the Super Bowl.

Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher is tripped up by Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers at the Bears 45-yard line after intercepting a Rodgers pass at the Bears 6 in the third quarter of the NFC Championship game at Soldier Field on Jan. 23, 2011. The Bears trailed 14-0 at the time and lost 21-14. | Jim Prisching/AP photo

“It will always be a memorable experience for me just because it was my biggest moment in my career,” said Hanie, an undrafted free agent from Colorado State who was with the Bears from 2008-11. “I felt like we won the game afterwards by all the congratulations I was getting personally. I think I had 200 messages on my phone. Fans were like, ‘You did awesome out there man.’ I think the fans were just glad that it turned into a game.”

Hanie of course lamented the two interceptions, especially the one by the 6-2, 337-pound Raji, who surprisingly dropped into coverage on a play-call by Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers designed to take advantage of an inexperienced quarterback. “The first time we’ve made that call all year,” Capers said after the game. When Shields blitzed, Hanie went right to Matt Forte — unaware that Raji had dropped into coverage.

“Tough to see a d-lineman from the other side of the field coming over,” Hanie said. “And that was a new [offensive] play we had installed for that week that I don’t think I had run one time. So my reaction [to a Packers blitz] was to get the ball to Matt Forte.

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“Devin Hester was wide open across the middle. With more experience my reaction may have been to have a wider view of the field that [I] might have thrown it in a different place. You don’t get focused in on, ‘OK, here’s the blitz, here’s my hot guy. He’s the guy to throw to.’”

The final pick to Shields came on a fourth-and-five from the Packers 29 after a curious third-and-three call by offensive coordinator Mike Martz — an end around to Earl Bennett that lost two yards. Hanie’s pass for Johnny Knox was intercepted at the 12.

“It was two-man coverage. We didn’t have the best play called for two-man and I forced that throw to Johnny,” Hanie said. “I wish I would have thrown the quick-out instead. I completed a pass to Johnny [for 32 yards to the 1-yard line earlier in the fourth quarter] — that play was perfect for two-man. We might have had a touchdown.”

Hanie’s lament was similar to that of many Bears fans. If only coach Lovie Smith had turned to him sooner.

“It was bittersweet for me personally — getting in late in the third quarter and having really just the fourth quarter to work with,” said Hanie, now the chief operating officer of Dallas-based National Flex Football, which promotes limited-contact nine-on-nine football for youth programs. “It was kind of a whirlwind finish — just a lot of stuff happening in the fourth quarter.”

As it turned out, that Shields interception would be the last pass a Bears quarterback would throw in the playoffs. Cutler, Collins and Hanie are all out of the NFL. In fact, only five players from the 2010 team still are in the NFL —  tight end Greg Olsen and defensive end Julius Peppers are with the Panthers. Kicker Robbie Gould is still going strong with the 49ers. Corey Graham, a special teams ace with the Bears is a starting cornerback with the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles. And tackle J’Marcus Webb was a starter with the Colts before suffering a season-ending hamstring injury in the opener.

The seven-season drought was the second-longest in franchise history — behind only the 12-season drought from 1964-77. In fact, prior to the glorious 2018 season, the Bears had been in the playoffs only five times since the end of the Ditka Era (1992). That was tied with the Raiders, Redskins and Cardinals for the fewest in the NFL in that span, among teams that were in the league in 1993.

Here’s a look back at the Bears’ playoff appearances since the end of the Ditka era

2010

The set-up: With Jay Cutler in his second season and Brian Urlacher back after missing virtually the entire 2009 season with a dislocated wrist, the Bears improved from 7-9 to 11-5 and won the NFC North and were the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. Everything seemed to be going their way when the 7-9 Seahawks upset the defending Super Bowl champion Saints (11-5) in the wild-card game to earn a trip to Soldier Field.

Divisional game: Bears 35,  Seahawks 24.

Jay Cutler threw a 58-yard touchdown pass to Greg Olsen on the Bears’ third play from scrimmage — Cutler’s first pass in the playoffs — and scored on runs of six and nine yards as the Bears led 21-0 at halftime, 28-0 in the third quarter and coasted into the NFC Championship Game.

NFC Championship Game: Packers 21, Bears 14.

It looked too good to be true when the sixth-seeded Packers routed the top-seeded Falcons to give the Bears a home game with a Super Bowl berth on the line. The Bears had beaten the Packers 20-17 at Soldier Field in Week 3, but missed an opportunity to prevent the Packers from making the playoffs in a 10-3 loss at Lambeau Field in Week 17.

Aaron Rodgers burned the Bears from the start, driving the Packers 84 yards on just seven plays for a 7-0 lead on the opening possession of the game. The Bears defense responded, as both Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher intercepted Rodgers to keep the Bears in it. But with Cutler ineffective and then injured, the Bears turned to Hanie too late to pull off the comeback.

2006

The set-up: With a dominating defense led by Urlacher, defensive tackle Tommie Harris and safety Mike Brown and Rex Grossman an MVP candidate in the early going, the Bears won their first seven games with a scoring margin of 221-69. Their pace slowed as Brown and Harris suffered injuries and Grossman’s efficiency declined, but still finished 13-3 to go into the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the NFC.

Divisional game: Bears 27, Seahawks 24

After driving 80 yards for a touchdown on their opening drive the Bears fell flat on both sides of the ball and trailed 24-21 in the fourth quarter. After Devin Hester had a 66-yard punt return for a touchdown nullified by a penalty, the Bears tied the game on Robbie Gould’s 41-yard field goal with 4:24 left in regulation, and won it on Gould’s 49-yard field goal in overtime.

NFC Championship Game: Bears 39, Saints 14

With the advantage of facing a dome team in wintry conditions at Soldier Field, the Bears took a 16-0 lead in the first half. The Saints closed to 16-14 when Reggie Bush turned a screen pass into an 88-yard touchdown early in the third quarter.

But Bush taunting the Bears near the end of the play and then somersaulting into the end zone seemed to insult and ignite the Bears defense, which responded with a safety, a fumble recovery on a strip-sack of Drew Brees and an interception as the Bears outscored the Saints 21-0 in the fourth quarter to win going away.

Super Bowl XLI: Colts 29, Bears 17

It looked like the Bears were destined to win when Devin Hester returned the opening kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown — the first opening-kickoff touchdown return in Super Bowl history. And the Bears scored again in the first quarter on Rex Grossman’s four-yard touchdown pass to Muhsin Muhammad for a 14-6 lead.

But the Bears’ offense struggled from there and the Colts scored 16 unanswered points for a 22-14 lead. The Bears still had a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter, trailing 22-17. But Grossman was intercepted by Chicagoan Kelvin Hayden, who returned the pick 56 yards for a demoralizing and ultimately lethal blow.

2005

The set-up: After Grossman suffered a broken ankle in the preseason, the Bears started 1-3 in Lovie Smith’s second season. But they rallied behind rookie Kyle Orton and the best defense in the league — led by NFL Defensive Player of the Year Urlacher — to win 10 of 11 games, to win the NFC North title and finished 11-5. Grossman returned in Week 15 against the Falcons and started in a 24-17 victory over the Packers the following week — completing the Bears’ first sweep of the Packers since 1991 — that clinched the division.

Divisional game: Panthers 29, Bears 21

A convincing 13-3 victory over John Fox’s Panthers in November was a statement game. But it was a different story in the playoffs. Jake Delhomme threw a 58-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith on the second play from scrimmage and the Bears never recovered. Smith, who had 14 receptions for 169 yards in the regular-season game, finished with 12 receptions for 218 yards as the Panthers out-gained the Bears 434-282.

2001

The set-up: Following seasons of 4-12, 4-12, 6-10 and 5-11 under Dave Wannstedt and Dick Jauron, the Bears parlayed the meteoric rises of Urlacher and Brown into one of the most stunning seasons in franchise history. Sparked by two incredible finishes behind back-up Shane Matthews — capped by game-ending pick-6s by Brown in back-to-back games against the 49ers and Browns — the Bears finished 13-3 to win the NFC North and go into the playoffs as the No. 2 seed

Divisional game: Eagles 33, Bears 19

After a glorious regular season, the Bears suffered a sudden an ignominious demise — pushed around by the Eagles and outfoxed by Chicagoan Donovan McNabb.

Quarterback Jim Miller suffered a separated shoulder when he was rudely taken down by Hugh Douglas after throwing an interception. Still, the Bears took a 14-13 lead after St.  Rita product Ahmad Merritt’s scored a touchdown on a 47-yard end-around and Jerry Azumah returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown early in the third quarter. But the Eagles regained the lead behind McNabb, who punctuated the victory over his hometown team by dunking the ball over the crossbar after scoring on a five-yard run to give the Eagles a 33-17 lead with 3:21 to go.

1994

The set-up: After a 4-4 start in Dave Wannstedt’s second season, a four-game winning streak to start the second half of the season behind Steve Walsh gave the Bears just enough room to sneak into the playoffs. Despite losing three of their last four games, they won a wild-card berth when the Giants beat the Cowboys in Week 17.

Wild-card game: Bears 35, Vikings 18

With little momentum and facing a Vikings team that had beaten them 42-13 and 33-27 in overtime in the regular season, the Bears pulled off a huge upset for their first road playoff victory since 1984. Walsh threw two touchdown passes and Raymont Harris and Lewis Tillman scored touchdowns as the Bears scored 35 points after finishing 24th of 28 teams in scoring in the regular season.

Divisional game: 49ers 44, Bears 15

Facing a 49ers team still in its Bill Walsh-George Seifert prime, it looked good early when Alonzo Spellman recovered a Brent Jones fumble and Kevin Butler kicked a field goal for a 3-0 lead. But the 49ers — aided by two Walsh interceptions — scored on their next five possessions for a 30-3 lead at halftime and the Bears ended up being barely a bump in the road for the 49ers en route to their fifth Super Bowl championship.