The Bears didn’t hoist the Halas Trophy high at midfield before thousands of screaming fans Sunday.
Instead, in the most cruel twist, the ceremony to honor the NFC champion took place in the visitors’ locker room at Soldier Field, and the trophy named for ‘‘Papa Bear’’ George Halas was handled by a bunch of Green Bay Packers, winners of an ugly 21-14 slugfest.
‘‘We accomplished a couple of goals, but a successful season is holding the trophy up at the end of the year,’’ Bears defensive end Julius Peppers said. ‘‘We didn’t do that, so you can’t really say that this is acceptable.’’
It was even harder for the Bears to stomach because they could have done the entire NFC playoff field a favor by eliminating the Packers in the regular-season finale at Lambeau Field on Jan. 2. Instead, the Packers eked out a 10-3 win, and as the sixth seed won three consecutive road games to earn their trip to the Super Bowl in Dallas on Feb. 6.
On Sunday, the Packers jumped out to a 14-0 lead, knocked Bears quarterback Jay Cutler from the game and survived an unlikely comeback led by third-stringer Caleb Hanie.
‘‘Obviously, we understood what position we were in,’’ Packers receiver Greg Jennings said. ‘‘We clawed our way out of the hole, and we were able to get in the playoffs.
‘‘Obviously, that Week 17 game against the Bears, they knew what was at stake. They knew they didn’t want to see us in the playoffs, and a lot of teams didn’t. And this is why — because we created a lot of problems for opposing teams.’’
No problem was bigger than the 5-11 Jennings.
He opened the game with two catches for 48 yards and finished with a game-high 130 receiving yards. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers cooled off considerably, especially after torching the Atlanta Falcons the week before. He finished 17-for-30 passing for 244 yards but was intercepted twice and didn’t throw a touchdown. Rodgers, though, consistently connected with Jennings enough to keep drives alive, and he picked his spots to run well, finishing with 39 rushing yards, including the game’s opening touchdown.
He may not have had a memorable performance, but Rodgers finished the game and outperformed Cutler, who left after the opening series of the third quarter with a knee injury.
Up to that point, the Bears’ offense had been dormant, getting just six first downs. When Cutler left the game, he was 6-for-14 passing for 80 yards. He had one turnover — a costly one — in the final minute of the first half after Bears linebacker Lance Briggs intercepted a pass off receiver Donald Driver’s foot. Two plays later, Cutler’s deep pass down the left sideline for receiver Johnny Knox was intercepted by cornerback Sam Shields.
Veteran backup quarterback Todd Collins took over for Cutler, but he had two forgettable three-and-out series that ended in near-interceptions.
But Hanie gave the Bears a spark.
He completed his first pass, a routine swing pass to running back Matt Forte for 11 yards. Then, on second-and-13, he drilled Knox for a 32-yarder that set up running back Chester Taylor’s one-yard touchdown.
Hanie threw another touchdown, a 35-yarder to Earl Bennett, but he also had two costly interceptions. Defensive tackle B.J. Raji returned the first for an 18-yard touchdown, and Shields grabbed the second one on fourth down in the final minute.
The Bears (12-6) won the NFC North, and they exceeded the expectations of many. Bears linebacker Lance Briggs said there’s no reason to think they can’t take it a step further in 2011.
‘‘We’re in this for the long haul,’’ Briggs said. ‘‘We might have fell short of our goals this year, but next year we won’t fall short.
‘‘The confidence that this team has is different than [that of] the [people] outside looking in.’’