CHICAGO — Quieting a Chicago Bears fan is never easy, but Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers did just that Sunday and earned a trip to the biggest game of them all.
The Packers continued their magical run with a tension-filled 21-14 victory over the Bears at sold-out Soldier Field. The Packers advance to Super Bowl XLV on Feb. 6 in Arlington, Texas, where they will play another from the NFL's old guard: the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The NFC Championship victory, secured when the Packers' Sam Shields intercepted a Caleb Hanie pass in the final minute, ended a week of unprecedented hype that featured two of the fiercest rivals in sports. The Packers and Bears met Sunday for the 182nd time - but remarkably, just the second time in the postseason.
The win undoubtedly will electrify the state of Wisconsin and the rest of Packers Nation worldwide for the next two weeks, but it was especially sweet for those fans lucky enough to be within the city limits of Chicago to watch the historic game unfold.
"I'm exhausted," said Erin Ferris, a Cedarburg native who now lives in Chicago and made it to Soldier Field. "It was nail-biting and so exciting. It was awesome, the best experience ever, especially in Chicago."
The win means the Packers will play in their fifth Super Bowl and their first since losing to Denver in Super Bowl XXXII after the 1997 season. It also brings with it the ultimate of bragging rights. The victory occurred in the belly of the beast and helped Packers fans rid the sour taste of the NFC Championship Game after the 2007 season, in which they saw their team lose at Lambeau Field to the New York Giants.
"This helps remove some of that," said Bob McConnell, of Armstrong, Iowa, who watched Sunday's game at Kroll's South Loop bar a few blocks from Soldier Field and was at the Giants game in 2008. "It's pretty sweet."
Packers fans thought they had the game in hand after B.J. Raji's interception return for a touchdown put the Packers up 21-7, but Bears fans came back to life when the Bears answered to make it 21-14. Shields last-minute interception allowed Packers fans to celebrate a Super Bowl berth twice.
"It's indescribable to see the way this team has grown over the season," said Tim Anderson, a Chicago native but a die-hard Packers fan. "They were really unstoppable."
Fans exchanged chants throughout the game. Some waited in line five hours before kickoff just to secure a seat at the bar, which is owned by the same family that operates Kroll's in Green Bay.
The faithful at Kroll's South Loop included Sue Kranick, Mary Dolson and Cindy Demro of Green Bay. All three were Packers cheerleaders in the 1980s and could have stayed on Wisconsin soil to watch the game but were drawn south of the border.
"We had so much fun at those games, so here we are," said Kranick, who brought along Polly Packer, a Barbie doll dressed as a Packers cheerleader.
Fans came to Kroll's from Oshkosh, Racine, Little Chute and Milwaukee. Several were from Madison, including Seth Dade, 26, who caught a train in Harvard, Ill., to revel with Packers fans.
"It was this or Will's Northwoods, but this is closer to the stadium," Dade said. "It was a good scene. You couldn't ask for more in Chicago."
At Soldier Field, where, unlike Lambeau Field, tailgating space is limited, the second level of a parking garage served as party central for Bears fans and a few wearing Green Bay colors.
"We're here to stick out," said Jim Hecker, of the Milwaukee suburb of Oak Creek. "It's history in the making."
Hecker was among a smattering of Packers fans who had found a Packers-friendly tailgate party in a sea of navy and orange. The trunk of Sara Hronek's Chevy Impala included a sign encouraging Packers fans to unite. And they did, drinking Miller Lite, grilling brats and fending off snide comments from Bears fans.
"They all just kind of found us," Hronek said of her new friends. "This is about bringing home the trophy to where it belongs."
One of her guests was Jim Stein of Cedarburg. He was wearing a Packers jersey, fleece Green Bay Packers pants made by his daughter for a school assignment and a throwback knitted hat that included aluminum Pabst Blue Ribbon cans.
"We just had to find some Packer people," Stein said. "It's not Lambeau, I'll tell you that. ... There's nothing like Lambeau Field."
Sunday's game will undoubtedly go down as one of the great moments in Wisconsin sports history: the Packers' three Super Bowl wins, the Milwaukee Brewers' 1982 American League pennant, the Brewers' win on Easter Sunday at County Stadium in 1987, the Milwaukee Braves' 1957 World Series victory and the Badgers' win over UCLA in the 1994 Rose Bowl.
Like those memorable times, Sunday's performance by the Packers will be talked about for years.
"The whole gist of (Bears coach) Lovie Smith was to beat the Packers," said Steve Imig, who grew up in Sheboygan but now lives in Chicago. "He failed."