- The Washington Times - Monday, January 22, 2007

CHICAGO.

A dome team like the New Orleans Saints might understand the importance of the home-field advantage, but it will probably never fully appreciate the importance of the home-climate advantage. That, as much as anything, was what the Chicago Bears had going for them in yesterday’s NFC title game — played in snowy conditions that all but bellowed: You must find a way to make the running game work. You can’t throw 49 times and expect to go to the Super Bowl.

The club from the NFC North grasped this reality, leaning on Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson for 183 rushing yards and three touchdowns and limiting skittish Rex Grossman to 26 often errant passes. That’s why the Bears won 39-14. The club from the NFC South, meanwhile, gave workhorse back Deuce McAllister the afternoon off (six carries, 18 yards) and did indeed have Drew Brees throw 49 times. That’s why Brees, despite his 354 passing yards and two TDs, also had an interception, two sack-fumbles and two intentional grounding calls, the first of which cost his team a two-point safety at a crucial point in the game.

Such risk-taking, such offensive lopsidedness, tends to catch up with you, and that was certainly the case with the Saints. They had a great season, were the feel-good story of the year in the NFL, but they approached this game in a highly questionable way — and figure to spend the next few months, if not the rest of their lives, regretting it.

“It was disappointing not to be involved more,” McAllister said. Disappointing? It was borderline criminal. Coach Sean Payton said his offensive strategy was dictated by the Bears’ insistence on playing eight-man fronts and daring New Orleans to throw. But even so, you’ve got to get the ball in the hands of your best runner more than a half-dozen times. The Seahawks understood this the week before, when they made sure Shaun Alexander got his 100 yards against Chicago — and nearly pulled an upset — but it apparently escaped the Saints.

“We just didn’t want to bang our head against a wall,” Payton said. “That’s a very good defensive team.”

Yes, the Bears are. But that’s precisely why you have to bang your head against their defensive wall … at least a little bit. For one thing, you’re liable to pop a run every now and then (as Alexander did); for another, you take a little steam out of the pass rush. Without a ground game, Brees was pretty much besieged from start to finish.

“We were trying to stay aggressive,” said Payton. To which I reply: One man’s “staying aggressive” is another man’s “playing with fire.” Brian Urlacher and Co. led the league in takeaways this season with 44, and as they reminded everybody yesterday, you’re much more apt to force a turnover on a passing play — through an interception or sack — than on a running play.

But the Saints ignored this cardinal rule and acted as if the game were being played in Arizona or Florida. Good luck with that approach.

What was even more stunning was that New Orleans insisted on throwing even though it was repeatedly backed up in its own end (by Brad Maynard’s punts and the occasional special teams penalty). One such situation late in the third quarter turned the game in Chicago’s favor for good. On first down from his 5-yard line, Brees fired incomplete to Marques Colston. Then on second down, he dropped back into the end zone and fired incomplete again — to no one in particular. That brought an intentional grounding flag and a safety that increased the Bears’ then-shaky lead to 18-14. An absolute killer.

As Brees explained it, the Saints sent only two receivers out on the play, and both ran “down-the-field routes.” His other receiving options stayed in to block and “weren’t really out of the backfield” by the time he began to feel pressure from the Bears’ rush. “I might have been able to get out of the pocket,” he said — which would have enabled him to ground the ball with impunity — “but I felt like I had to get rid of the ball pretty quick.”

Not long afterward, Chicago started scoring touchdowns — first one (on 33-yard catch by Bernard Berrian), then a second (on a 12-yard run by Benson) and finally a third (on a 15-yard run by Jones) to turn a tight game into a Total Drumming.

“We accomplished a lot in a short period of time,” Payton said. “We went from a team that won three games a year ago and was last statistically in a lot of categories to a team that went to the NFC Championship game for the first time in franchise history.”

True enough. In the aftermath of Katrina, the Saints — homeless in 2006 — were nothing less than a miracle. But they still could have gone a little farther — if they just remembered where they were yesterday:

They were in Chicago … in January. At Soldier Field in the dead of winter, you pass at your peril.

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