He had the ball under his arm and nothing but brown grass in front of him. This was going to be perhaps the greatest Brian Urlacher highlight of all time. The clip of him returning an Aaron Rodgers interception for a touchdown against the Green Bay Packers in perhaps the most anticipated game in Bears history would be replayed forevermore.
The only thing between the Bears’ iconic middle linebacker and the end zone was Rodgers himself. It was a mismatch if there ever was one. Then Urlacher tried to cut back, only to find Rodgers getting an arm on him, tripping him and sending him crashing down after a 39-yard return.
Rodgers passed for 244 yards and ran for a touchdown in the Packers 21-14 win over the Bears in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field.
But his biggest play may have been that potentially game-saving tackle.
‘‘He threw it at me,’’ Urlacher said. ‘‘I don’t know if he didn’t see me or what. He threw it at me and tackled me. That’s what I saw.’’
Urlacher’s day paralleled that of the Bears. He, like his defensive mates, missed some tackles early, which contributed to the Packers jumping out to a 14-point lead. He played his best football after that, however, helping set the stage for a frantic rally that fell short when third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie was intercepted by cornerback Sam Shields with 37 seconds left.
Urlacher finished with a sack, an interception and 10 tackles. It was a typical performance for him in a comeback season during which he proved he still ranks among the NFL’s elite linebackers after missing all but the season opener in 2009 with a wrist injury.
In the end, however, it wasn’t good enough.
‘‘It’s a disappointing way to end the season,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s not the way I wanted to end it. But you know, no one expected us to be here. We know that. It doesn’t make it any easier for us to lose this game. We expected to win this game. We expected to play good. We just made too many mistakes. Give them all the credit. They made us make the mistakes. They played better than we did.’’
The Packers gashed the Bears on their opening possession, ripping off big chunks of yardage during a seven-play, 84-yard drive capped by Rodgers’ 1-yard run. The Bears allowed another touchdown early in the second quarter and shut the prolific Packers offense out after that.
Cornerback Tim Jennings said they were more aggressive defensively in the second half, playing more man-to-man and trying to put more pressure on Rodgers in order to make him move in the pocket and get rid of the ball more quickly. Urlacher had a more simple explanation.
‘‘We just hunkered down,’’ he said of what changed in the second half. ‘‘Guys got off the line. We got takeaways, we got pressure on them and played how we play.’’
Rodgers said he endured a lot of ribbing from his teammates after trying and failing to tackle Bears cornerback Charles Tillman after his diving interception in Week 17. In this case, he sprinted after Urlacher as soon as he made what he described as a ‘‘terrible throw’’ intended for Donald Driver. Urlacher had stepped in front of the pass at the 6.
Rodgers said he immediately knew how important it was to find some way to prevent Urlacher from scoring. As it turned out, Bears backup quarterback Todd Collins was intercepted on the next possession.
‘‘I don’t get paid to tackle,’’ Rodgers said. ‘‘But it was probably one of my better plays of the day.’’