The snow began falling before kickoff.
The Seahawks' chances dipped below zero soon thereafter.
On a brisk, blustery and snowy Sunday afternoon along the shores of Lake Michigan, the Bears sent a chilly warning to the rest of the league:
Underestimate us at your peril.
Chicago pounded Seattle from the opening kickoff, routing the NFC West champions, 35-24, to earn a home date with the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game next Sunday.
It will be the 182nd incarnation of the NFL's oldest rivalry, one that dates to 1921.
"We expected to be in this game," said Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, now one win away from his second Super Bowl in four years. "We didn't get a lot of credit this year, but we expected to be good."
Of course, there will be a whole week to hype the title game.
This day belonged to Jay Cutler, Chicago's talented but prickly quarterback, who in his fifth year is finally approaching the expectations that come with his immense talent.
Cutler passed for two touchdowns and ran for two more, completing 15 of 28 passes for 274 yards and -- most important -- no interceptions.
"It's fun," said Cutler, who cracked a rare smile in his postgame news conference, a ritual he usually finds as appealing as an IRS audit. "To be at home and in the situation we were in, we came out of the gates quick.
"It's been a fun ride, but it's not over yet."
Cutler's pro career has been subject to nonstop scrutiny, starting with his much-publicized rift with the Broncos and then-coach Josh McDaniels, his subsequent trade to Chicago, and his rocky first season with the Bears.
Chicago went 7-9 in 2009, its third consecutive season out of the playoffs, and Cutler threw 26 interceptions.
But Mike Martz got Cutler back on track in his first year as offensive coordinator, with Sunday afternoon's dissection of Seattle's ragged secondary perhaps the quarterback's finest hour.
"I don't think you're going to get a better performance by a quarterback in the playoffs," said tight end Greg Olsen, who had three catches for 113 yards and a score. "You can't give enough credit to what he did."
Olsen's touchdown -- a 58-yard strike on a go-route -- came in the game's first three minutes, and gave Chicago (12-5) a lead it would never relinquish.
The Bears, who outgained Seattle 437-275, went up 14-0 late in the first quarter on a 1-yard plunge by Chester Taylor. Then Cutler essentially put the game away some six minutes later when he rushed 6 yards to the end zone.
As good as Chicago's offense was, its defense might have been better, at least in the first half. A week after scoring 41 points in their upset win over New Orleans, the Seahawks managed just 96 yards of total offense in the first half, going 1 for 8 on third downs.
"It took a long time for them to fight and compete and do the things we want them to do," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "I would have loved to have got this game Sunday that so many people didn't think we could. I see where we're going, and I'm proud of that."
Things only got worse for Seattle (8-10) after halftime, as Cutler again scored with his legs -- this time on a busted play. The design was for a shovel pass, but with it covered, Cutler kept the ball and scored on a 9-yard dash.
Seattle pieced together four scoring drives in the game's final 17 minutes, but they merely provided a bit of cosmetic surgery to the scoreboard and Matt Hasselbeck's stat line. Seattle's quarterback went 26 of 46 for 258 yards and three touchdowns, but they all came in mop-up time.
Cutler's final touchdown pass, however, was Seattle's fatal blow. He connected again deep to a tight end -- this time for 39 yards to Kellen Davis -- and assured Bears fans one last home game.
"It just doesn't get any better, the way I see it, than Packers and Bears, finishing it up," Chicago coach Lovie Smith said. "When I looked back on the season, I knew it easily could come down to this."
Seahawks 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.