Bears roll over Saints
Published 4:14 am Monday, January 22, 2007
By By BARRY WILNER, AP Football Writer
CHICAGO — The Chicago Bears know how to make a Super Bowl memorable. They’re making this one historic long before it’s played.
Dissed all season long, Rex Grossman and Co. are heading to the big game for the first time since 1985 after rolling over the New Orleans Saints 39-14 Sunday, and Da Coach leading them there makes it all the more special.
Lovie Smith’s arrival in Miami will make him the first black head coach to reach the marquee game in its 41 years.
This isn’t the wild bunch, led by coach Mike Ditka and quarterbacked by Jim McMahon, that paraded down Bourbon Street, then routed New England for the championship 21 years ago. Its defense isn’t overpowering, its quarterback isn’t a renegade, its reputation isn’t celebrated.
This team, despite its impressive record, was maligned all season and never possessed the overpowering aura of Ditka’s gang.
Still, Smith’s team did it in true Bears fashion, with big plays on defense and a steady running game in the sleet and snow, ending the Saints’ uplifting saga.
The Bears (15-3) will play either the Patriots or the Indianapolis Colts, in Miami in two weeks. A Colts victory would put two black head coaches in the big game for the first time; Indy coach Tony Dungy was Smith’s mentor.
Added All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher: ‘‘For our franchise, this is big. They are a big part of this city, and what they did in ’85 is huge. We have an opportunity to do that right now. We’re excited to have the opportunity to kind of put the (’85) guys in the background for a little while.’’
All the worries about how genuine the Bears’ outstanding season was disappeared thanks to running back Thomas Jones, All-Pro kicker Robbie Gould and a defense that, while not dominant, made enough decisive plays.
For a moment, though, in the third quarter they seemed to be in trouble.
Reggie Bush’s electrifying 88-yard touchdown catch and dash to the end zone pulled the Saints within two points, 16-14. But from then on, Urlacher and the Bears’ defense took over.
Chicago, which has won nine NFL titles but has been an also-ran for much of the last two decades, later went 85 yards in five plays in the worst of the weather. The oft-criticized Grossman had four completions, including a 33-yarder to a diving Bernard Berrian that clinched it, sending the bundled-up fans in Soldier Field into foot-stomping hysteria and chants of ‘‘Super Bowl, Super Bowl.’’
Jones had all 69 yards on an eight-play ground drive in the second quarter, scored twice and rushed for 123 yards. Gould nailed three field goals.
The Bears, who led the league with 44 takeaways, forced four turnovers, and when NFC passing leader Drew Brees fumbled less than a minute after Berrian’s TD, whatever karma the Saints (11-7) carried this season disappeared.
Cedric Benson then scored on a 12-yard run, and from there it was a matter of searching for the sunscreen.
Smith and Bears owner Virginia McCaskey, daughter of Bears founder George Halas, accepted the Halas Trophy moments after Grossman tossed the ball deep into the stands after the final kneel-down.
It was a bitter, sloppy conclusion to the Saints’ remarkable turnaround from a nomadic 3-13 season in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction to this winning season. As their city rebuilds, the team has provided an inspiring respite in the recovery story.
This was the first trip this far into the playoffs for the 40-year-old franchise, previously best known as the Aints, whose fans wore paper bags on their heads because the team was so bad.
Down 16-0 and throttled for 28 minutes, the Saints awakened late in the first half on a 29-yard third-down completion to Marques Colston, who previously had several drops and several more slips. Brees threw a pair of sideline darts and Colston beat Charles Tillman for a 13-yard TD that temporarily changed the flow with 46 seconds remaining in the half.
It took New Orleans only 2:40 into the third quarter to make it 16-14 on Bush’s spectacular 88-yard touchdown that ended with a couple of bush moves. The rookie beat Chris Harris off the line, ignored the sleet and extended for Brees’ looping pass. Then he sped down the left sideline and, at midfield, used one of those Heisman jukes past Danieal Manning.
As Bush neared the end zone, he turned and pointed tauntingly at the hopelessly trailing Urlacher before somersaulting into the end zone.
That hot-dogging wasn’t close to Brees’ mistake in the end zone. Under pressure but still in the pocket, he threw the ball away, causing a safety.
That erased any momentum for the Saints, and Chicago scored on Berrian’s brilliant catch at the 2; he was not tackled down and stood up to cross the goal line.
A Chicago blitz stymied New Orleans’ opening drive. After Devery Henderson outfought Tillman for a 40-yard pass to the Bears’ 32, an all-out rush on third down led to a sack by Israel Idonije and a Saints punt into the end zone.
It set a first-half trend.
Another sack, by rookie Mark Anderson, Chicago’s top pass rusher this season, was even more embarrassing to the Saints. Brees lost the ball and a Keystone Kops chase for it wound up in a 25-yard loss when rookie guard Jahri Evans recovered.
But Chicago’s offense went nowhere.
So the defense got things started. Harris stripped the ball from Colston and Tillman returned it to the Saints’ 36. After getting their initial first down on a 16-yard reverse by Rashied Davis, the Bears gambled on fourth-and-1 at the 4 and Benson converted.
But all they got was Gould’s 19-yard field goal.
New Orleans remained charitable, and Adrian Peterson stripped kickoff returner Michael Lewis at the Saints’ 30. Sean Payton lost a video challenge, and Gould hit from 43.
The sloppy footing was an issue all during the game, particularly once the cold rain, followed by sleet and snow, began falling. Runners, receivers and returners kept slipping and areas of the turf were gashed by halftime.
Gould’s 24-yarder made it 9-0 and Jones had his personal touchdown drive, with his 33-yard run the Bears’ longest all season.
Jones capped the ground march with a 2-yard run for a 16-0 lead. He also scored from 15 yards in the fourth quarter.
Former Washington High School and East Carolina University standout Terrance Copper had three catches for 29 yards for the Saints.
He finished the season with 27 catches for 415 yards and three touchdowns. All were career-highs for Copper.
NFC Championship Stats
New Orleans 0 7 7 0 — 14
Chicago 3 13 2 21 — 39
Chi—FG Gould 19, :41.
Chi—FG Gould 43, 13:40.
Chi—FG Gould 24, 8:52.
Chi—Jones 2 run (Gould kick), 1:56.
NO—Colston 13 pass from Brees (Carney kick), :46.
NO—Bush 88 pass from Brees (Carney kick), 12:20.
Chi—Safety, Brees intentional grounding in end zone, 5:27.
Chi—Berrian 33 pass from Grossman (Gould kick), 14:23.
Chi—Benson 12 run (Gould kick), 11:37.
Chi—Jones 15 run (Gould kick), 4:19.
First downs 15 18
Total Net Yards 375 340
Rushes-yards 12-56 46-196
Passing 319 144
Punt Returns 4-15 2-24
Kickoff Returns 7-132 3-39
Interceptions Ret. 0-0 1-0
Comp-Att-Int 27-49-1 11-26-0
Sacked-Yards Lost 3-35 0-0
Punts 5-38.8 7-47.4
Fumbles-Lost 4-3 1-0
Penalties-Yards 7-47 1-5
Time of Possession 24:45 35:15
RUSHING—New Orleans, Bush 4-19, McAllister 6-18, Karney 1-11, Brees 1-8. Chicago, Jones 19-123, Benson 24-60, Davis 1-16, Grossman 2-(minus 3).
PASSING—New Orleans, Brees 27-49-1-354. Chicago, Grossman 11-26-0-144.
RECEIVING—New Orleans, Bush 7-132, Colston 5-63, Miller 4-31, Copper 3-29, McAllister 3-27, Henderson 2-57, Campbell 2-6, Karney 1-9. Chicago, Berrian 5-85, McKie 3-6, Clark 1-30, Muhammad 1-20, Gilmore 1-3.
MISSED FIELD GOAL—New Orleans, Cundiff 47 (SH).