CHICAGO — Football's oldest rivalry has a grand new prize: a spot in the Super Bowl.
The Bears' 35-24 dismantling of overmatched Seattle on Sunday sets up the biggest game in their 90-year series with the Packers. Chicago and Green Bay will play for the 182nd time next Sunday, but their first meeting for the NFC title.
Jay Cutler ran for two touchdowns and threw for two as Chicago (12-5) pounded the Seahawks (8-10) from the outset, gliding through the snowflakes to score 21 first-half points. The defense was monstrous enough when it mattered, shutting down an offense that scored 41 points against New Orleans last week, but that gained only 111 through three periods at Soldier Field, where Seattle managed a 23-20 victory in October.
Although it got closer at the end, this was the result many projected the first division winner with a losing record would sustain, making it difficult to measure how good the Bears are. The NFL will find out next week against the Packers, who have beaten third-seeded Philadelphia and top-seeded Atlanta on the road this month. But to compare these Bears with the “Super Bowl Shuffle” bunch that won Chicago's only Super Bowl 25 years ago is a stretch.
“Now that we have beaten the Seahawks, it just doesn't get any better, as I see it, than for the NFC championship coming down to the Packers coming down on our turf this time,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “The Packers and Bears to finish it up.”
Cutler, in his first postseason game, showed none of the wild swings that often have marked his five-year career. He did show some shifty moves on a 6-yard run that made it 21-0, essentially turning everyone's attention to next weekend.
“We're both familiar with each other, so nothing's going to be new,” Cutler said. “We have our hands full.”
Not much was expected of the Bears when the season began, but they've improved mightily since falling to 4-3 heading into their bye week. They clinched a playoff berth with two games remaining, grabbing their first NFC North championship since 2006 — when they lost to Indianapolis in the Super Bowl.
Unlike Atlanta and Pittsburgh on Saturday, they showed no rust from having a bye in dominating Seattle. Then again, the Seahawks showed none of the surging emotions or big-play abilities they sprung on the Saints at home. It was merely a one-week reprieve, and they went even flatter after tight end John Carlson was carted off with a head injury in the first quarter following a nasty spill; Carlson landed on the side of his helmet and his shoulder, but had movement in his extremities.
Seattle lost cornerback Marcus Trufant to a head injury in the third quarter when he collided with Kellen Davis' knee while trying to make a tackle. Trufant also was carted off, but he also had feeling in his extremities.
Chicago put away the game with touchdowns on three of its first four possessions, by which time Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers and the rest of the defense had taken charge.
“Now we're back, playing together, hopefully peaking at the right time,” Urlacher said.
Greg Olsen, showing impressive speed for a tight end, streaked past safety Lawyer Milloy for a 58-yard TD reception on Chicago's third offensive play. Chester Taylor added a 1-yard TD run and Cutler's 6-yarder built an insurmountable lead.
Cutler liked using his feet so much he added a 9-yard sprint in the third quarter to make it 28-0. He even threw in a 21-yard scramble in the fourth quarter and finished with 43 yards rushing, 9 more than the Seahawks.
“It was fun,” Cutler said of his own shuffling. “That first one was called, second one was kind of improv.”
Olindo Mare's 30-yard field goal got the first points for Seattle, which will get mixed reviews in Pete Carroll's first season as coach. The Seahawks went 7-9, hardly what they had in mind when they hired Carroll away from Southern Cal. Still, they won the weak NFC West, and they eliminated the defending Super Bowl champions in the wild-card round.
“It took a long time for them to ... fight and compete and do the things we want them to do,” Carroll said. “I would have loved to have got this game today that so many people didn't think we could. I see where we're going and I'm proud of that.”
But the prospect of a .500 team playing for a berth in the Super Bowl is gone, even though Matt Hasselbeck threw for three fourth-quarter touchdowns.
So bring on the Packers, who lost to the Bears 33-14 at Wrigley Field on Dec. 14, 1941 in their only previous playoff meeting. Green Bay beat Chicago 10-3 in the season finale to clinch a playoff spot earlier this month. The Packers haven't been to the Super Bowl since the 1997 season, when they lost to Denver.