Bears silence Saints, skeptics to win NFC title

Bears 39 Saints 14

Nfl Playoffs Conference Championship

January 22, 2007|By Arthur Staple | Arthur Staple,NEWSDAY

CHICAGO -- The tradition has been dormant for more than two decades. No one will ever mistake Rex Grossman and Lovie Smith for Jim McMahon and Mike Ditka.

But on the shores of Lake Michigan, with the snow falling, the Chicago Bears revived that "Monsters of the Midway" mystique. They ran on the New Orleans Saints early, used their stifling defense to force three turnovers and ended up with a dominating, 39-14 win in the NFC championship game yesterday.

The Bears will play in the Super Bowl in Miami on Feb. 4, the storied franchise's first appearance in the title game since the days of McMahon, Ditka and a rout in the Super Bowl after the 1985 season.

Smith, who was passed over for the New York Giants' coaching job in favor of Tom Coughlin three years ago, became the first African-American coach to lead his team to the Super Bowl. Tony Dungy joined him a few hours later. Smith had the NFC's best team all season long, but his Bears still felt doubted despite the conference's top defense.

Defensive end Adewale Ogunleye opened up a folded piece of paper in the locker room yesterday, showing a list of NFL pundits who picked the Saints to win. "We've had a lot to motivate us," said Ogunleye, who sacked Drew Brees and fell on a loose ball with 13:41 left with the Bears ahead 25-14. The ensuing drive ended 2:04 later on Cedric Benson's 12-yard touchdown run to seal the win, part of a 196-yard rushing day for the Bears.

"It's snowing, we're running the football, our defense is playing hard, getting turnovers, making some big hits," said Bears running back Thomas Jones, who carried the ball on all eight plays of a 69-yard drive that ended with the game's first touchdown with 1:56 left in the first half. That gave the Bears a 16-0 lead. "It was the perfect situation."

The Saints, who rushed the ball only 12 times after finding no room early, pulled within 16-7 on Marques Colston's 13-yard touchdown with 46 seconds left in the first half; they pulled even closer on their second offensive play of the third, when Brees popped a timing pass to Reggie Bush and watched the rookie do the rest.

Bush faked Danieal Manning to the ground and raced 88 yards for a score, pointing at Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher for the final 10 yards of the run.

The Saints had the Soldier Field crowd under control, forcing a quick series by the Bears' offense. Brees (27-for-49, 354 yards) then marched his team down the field again, but the Bears held and Billy Cundiff missed a 47-yard field-goal attempt that would have given the Saints the lead.

Chicago then went three-and-out, but punter Brad Maynard bounced his kick out of bounds at the Saints' 5. On second down, Brees tried to throw away the ball with Bears linebacker Lance Briggs closing in on him. Referee Terry McAulay conferred with another official and threw an intentional grounding flag in the end zone, which resulted in a safety and an 18-14 Bears lead.

That was the first play that restored the Bears' mojo. The second was wide receiver Bernard Berrian's diving, catch-and-roll into the end zone. The 33-yard scoring pass by Grossman, his only touchdown throw of the day to go with zero interceptions and zero sacks, gave the Bears their two-score lead back with 14:23 left in the game.

"Bernard just saw the ball in the air and made a great play on it," Grossman said. "That was huge for our momentum."

Said Saints first-year coach Sean Payton: "It wasn't so much the safety as when we were able to drive and not come away with points. There are a lot of things to look at."

The Bears have had plenty to look at and think about after they got out to a 7-0 start and had to hear the questions about their weak quarterback, their weak conference and, this past week, the Saints' high-powered offense.

"We won 14 games and we didn't convince you then," Smith said. "But that's not really our plan. Our plan is once you win it, if you can win it all, then get respect. You don't get respect until then. We get our respect once we're able to hold up that ultimate trophy."

Smith felt the same way about being the first black coach in the Super Bowl. "I'll feel even better to be the first black coach to hold up the world championship trophy," he said.

The Bears will have that chance now, and the doubters don't have a leg to stand upon.

Arthur Staple writes for Newsday.

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