- The Washington Times - Monday, January 15, 2007

CHICAGO — As the Chicago Bears starter with the longest tenure, center Olin Kruetz has seen just about everything in his nine seasons, chiefly two NFC Divisional round home disappointments, losses to Philadelphia in the 2001 playoffs and Carolina last year.

So when things got a little dicey again for the Bears in a playoff home game — trailing the Seattle Seahawks by three points and less than five minutes remaining yesterday — Kruetz quickly gathered some of his teammates. He didn’t want the Bears to blow yet another playoff game at Solider Field.

“First of all, I told them we need everybody, and they needed to be ready to make a play at any time,” Kruetz said. “Second, I said don’t get down and keep fighting until we win the game.”

The Bears responded, tying the game on Robbie Gould’s 40-yard field goal with 4:24 remaining in regulation and then winning their divisional game 27-24 on Gould’s 49-yard field goal with 10:02 left in overtime.

The win moved Chicago (14-3) into its first NFC Championship game in 18 years. The Bears will play host to the New Orleans Saints (11-6) on Sunday.

But ever the wily veteran, Kruetz knows the work is only 33.3 percent complete.

“I don’t know which one is the ‘hill’ — this week, next week, the Super Bowl,” he said. “But it sure feels good.”

Chicago led 21-14 at halftime but entered the final quarter down 24-21 after Seattle got a field goal from Josh Brown and a touchdown run from Shaun Alexander.

The Bears, though, rallied behind their expected tough defense and a respectable effort from quarterback Rex Grossman.

“It’s an unbelievable situation we’re in right now,” said Grossman, who had 282 yards, one touchdown and one interception. “We win one game, we’re in the Super Bowl; we win two games, I’ll have a ring on my finger the rest of my life.”

Seattle got the ball first in overtime and moved to its own 48. But after another failed third-and-short and a dismal 18-yard punt by Ryan Plackemeier, Chicago started at its 34.

Facing a third-and-10, the Bears used a play that worked for 37 yards on the game’s first drive — a post pattern to receiver Rashied Davis. In overtime, it worked for 30 yards. Four plays later, the game was over.

“That play has been pretty big for us in crucial situations all season,” Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. “Rex has confidence in it, and that’s why we called it.”

Grossman, who completed 21 of 38 passes yesterday, had two long weeks to think about his woeful two-completion, three-interception debacle against Green Bay.

“You’re not going to play perfect in any game,” he said. “I wish I would’ve had a few plays back, but for the most part, I’m pleased with my performance because we won the game.”

In a crucial development for the Bears and Grossman, Chicago started fast, taking the opening drive 80 yards on 12 plays and scoring on Thomas Jones’ 9-yard touchdown run.

On the first play of the second quarter, Seattle notched the equalizer when Hasselbeck hit Nate Burleson for a 16-yard touchdown.

Chicago took a seven-point lead into halftime on Grossman’s 68-yard pass to Bernard Berrian and Jones’ 7-yard run, which sandwiched Alexander’s 4-yard touchdown.

Following Brown’s 40-yard field goal to open the second half, Seattle took its first lead when — on a gutsy third-and-10 play call — Alexander burst 13 yards through the middle.

Alexander, whose early season foot injury derailed realistic hopes for a return trip to the Super Bowl, finished with 108 yards rushing on 26 carries.

Early in the fourth quarter, both teams failed to capitalize on interceptions, and Gould’s 41-yarder forced overtime. The winner — which also tied a career long — was Gould’s second overtime kick of the season, but this one was far more important than the winning boot against Tampa Bay in Week 15.

“I was more relaxed today in these conditions than I have been in a long time,” Gould said. “It couldn’t have gone any better. I didn’t even watch the end of it. I hit it solid and right where I wanted it to go.”

Their first postseason victory in 12 years — and first home postseason win since the 1990 playoffs — out of the way, the Bears now get set for a Saints team whose offense did whatever it wanted Saturday night against Philadelphia.

“[Saturday night] I talked to the team about finishing,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said. “We were in this position last year and weren’t able to finish the season like we wanted. We know what we’ve gone through this year, and it would have been a shame not to finish this game and this season on a high note.”

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