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Loss leaves questions in its wake

Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith heads locker room after 21-14 loss Green Bay Packers NFC Championship Soldier Field Sunday

Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith heads to the locker room after the 21-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship at Soldier Field, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 8, 2011 1:20PM

This is the way a lucky season ends? At the hands of the Green Bay Packers? In front of a home crowd and a national-television audience with the most untimely of injuries and a third-string quarterback?

The Bears were exposed in brutal fashion Sunday in an NFC Championship Game loss that left a lot of questions.

Why defer the opening kickoff after winning the coin toss on a brutally cold day? What was the point of the Todd Collins exercise after Jay Cutler got hurt? Where the heck was the defense in the first half? How can the Bears bungle such a golden opportunity and expect to get another one?

The only good news is that the last time the Bears reached the Super Bowl, they lost the game and went through an unpleasant power grab that included firing people who helped them get there. They are spared that indignity this time around, as though losing to your greatest rival at home isn’t indignity enough. This time, there was plenty of blame to go around.

Let’s start with the decision to kick off to the Packers after winning the coin toss. Doesn’t logic dictate that you make a red-hot quarterback — Aaron Rodgers, in this case — come into the game cold after watching the Bears on the opening possession? What is the point of giving the guy the ball when he’s warm out of the locker room?

‘‘We wanted our defense to play, kind of as simple as that,’’ said Bears coach Lovie Smith, who passed on a 49-yard field-goal attempt in the second quarter. ‘‘It’s tough on an opposing offense to come in and get the crowd into it right away. So we felt like we could get a stop right away. As much as anything, we wanted the ball to start the second half, which we were able to do.’’

You can’t be concerned about winning the second half in such a big game. You have to win the first half.

Smith’s decision looked amateurish when the Packers didn’t even need a third down while marching 84 yards in seven plays to build a lead they never relinquished. The Bears were lucky to trail by only 14 points at halftime after the Packers put together no fewer than 13 plays of 10 yards or more, including five of 21 or more. The Packers had 149 more yards than the Bears in the first half (252-103) and enjoyed nearly five more minutes of possession.

The game had all the markings of a blowout, especially when Cutler limped to the locker room before halftime and came out of the game after testing his left knee on the opening possession of the second half. The possession Smith valued enough to give Rodgers the ball to start the game was a three-and-out.

Enter Collins. Why he came into the game remains a mystery. No offense to Collins, but the guy didn’t belong on the field. He was dropped to third string after a Week 5 start against the Carolina Panthers in which he put up a 6.2 rating and threw four interceptions. But he was moved back up to second string during the bye week, when Mike Martz changed his offense.

The Bears lifted Collins after two useless possessions, including a wasted opportunity after Brian Urlacher returned an interception to midfield when it looked as though the Packers were going to extend their lead by a field goal or touchdown.

Rodgers didn’t see Urlacher on the play because he was being harassed by Julius Peppers, but he did manage to bring him down with an arm tackle, saving a touchdown.

Urlacher was biting off answers after the game and really got upset when it was mentioned that NFL players such as Arizona Cardinals safety Kerry Rhodes and Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew were criticizing Cutler for leaving the game.

‘‘Who?’’ Urlacher said of Jones-Drew. ‘‘Where’s he at right now? Home. It’s easy to talk [bleep] about someone when you’re sitting on your couch watching their game. I don’t give a [bleep] about guys around the league watching at home.’’

Members of the defense pointed to the second half, when the unit was considerably better, as evidence of playing their way into the game. But, of course, the Packers went into shutdown mode after the Urlacher interception and didn’t seem too worried about what the Bears could do with Collins. Caleb Hanie came in and led two touchdown drives sandwiched around a pick-six to 337-pound defensive lineman B.J. Raji.

‘‘Todd Collins .  .  . there was a way we thought we could play him,’’ Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. ‘‘When Hanie came into the game, we were a little more cautious of his mobility.’’

The Bears were proud of not quitting and playing the Packers to the end. But in the end, they never stopped trailing after the Packers’ opening drive.

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