- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 21, 2007

For the two teams playing a few hours down Interstate 65 in Indianapolis today, the conference championship stage of the NFL playoffs is becoming a semi-regular occurrence. New England and Indianapolis will be meeting each other in the AFC title game for the second time in four years.

But for the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears, who meet today at Solider Field for the NFC crown, this is foreign territory, not only for the franchises but for nearly all of the key players.

The Saints (11-6) have never been to a conference title game. After going 3-13 last year, the team hired coach Sean Payton, signed quarterback Drew Brees, overhauled nearly half of its roster and won the NFC South with the league’s most prolific offense.

The Bears (14-3) last made it this far in the 1988 season. They were upset in last year’s divisional round, needed overtime to survive last week and have an up-and-down quarterback and a leaking-oil defense.

And the players are acutely aware of the game’s importance.

“It’s all you think about,” Chicago running back Thomas Jones said. “I was up pretty much all night [earlier this week]. You can’t help but think about it and it’s a very exciting time. We have an opportunity of a lifetime in front of us and we all understand that.”

Both teams used hot starts to the season to pave their way to the playoffs.

Chicago, helped by a wretched division, started 7-0 and cruised to the NFC North title and home-field advantage. The Bears’ last championship team was the famous “Super Bowl Shuffle” gang in 1985.

“All you hear about is the ‘85 Bears, constantly, and that’s a lot of motivation and a lot of incentive to live up to what they have done,” Jones said. “We know how this city loves football.”

New Orleans started 5-1 and survived a 1-3 hiccup in midseason to win its first division title since 2000. While the Bears face questions about a team from 21 years ago, the Saints face questions about an event — Hurricane Katrina — last year that ravaged their community and sent them to San Antonio.

“We’ve been riding an emotional wave the whole year,” Saints linebacker Scott Fujita said. “But you can’t discredit that this is a darn good team, too. The more games people watched and saw the effort the players were giving, they saw it was more than just an emotional story and that we were a legitimate contender.”

The Saints, despite their hot start, weren’t considered a legitimate contender until they burst into that stratosphere with a 42-17 drubbing of Dallas on Dec. 10. Although a loss to the lowly Washington Redskins followed, the Saints rebounded to rout the New York Giants in Week 16.

Last week against Philadelphia, the Saints showed just how powerful their offense can be. Taking advantage of a banged up Eagles defense, New Orleans rolled up 27 first downs and 435 yards in a 27-24 victory. The Saints had seven runs and 12 pass plays that gained 10 or more yards.

Leading the way was running back Deuce McAllister, who gained 143 yards on 21 carries and figures to get the same kind of workload today against a Bears run defense that gave up 132 yards rushing to Seattle, their second-highest allowed total this season.

Chicago defensive coordinator Ron Rivera said the Saints present the classic pick-your-poison dilemma: Gang up against the run and let All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees poke holes in the secondary with intermediate passes? Or play coverage, forcing McAllister to carry the offense?

“It depends on what dimension you want to put them in and how you’re going to attack them,” Rivera said. “You also have to respond to the way they’re going to use their personnel. What plan do they have for Reggie Bush? What play do they have for Deuce McAllister? How are they going to incorporate their wide receivers? Those are answers you have to have and have them quickly, probably by the second or third series.”

Chicago finished fifth in total defense this season but has been without safety Mike Brown and defensive tackle Tommie Harris for several weeks. The loss of Brown is particularly costly because of the Saints passing game. Brees had 4,418 yards passing and six players had at least 20 catches. With Joe Horn questionable, the Bears’ first priority downfield is rookie Marques Colston.

“They’re still pretty good,” Brees said of the Bears defense that had 24 interceptions and 40 sacks in the regular season. “Good teams find a way when guys go down. Everyone at this level is expected to step in and replace the guy and make sure there’s not a lapse in production.”

Brees has sustained few lapses in his first season with New Orleans. The same can’t be said for Chicago’s Rex Grossman.

Some young quarterbacks are up-and-down from game to game; Grossman is up-and-down from play to play.

Take the Seattle game for instance. Early in the second quarter, Grossman threw a perfect pass down the left hashmark to Bernard Berrian for a 68-yard touchdown. He followed that with three straight incompletions, a 5-yard pass, an incompletion, a 2-yard pass and a fumble that led to a Seattle touchdown.

Grossman was 21-for-38 for 282 yards with one touchdown and one interception against the Seahawks.

“I didn’t really study hard for final exams [in school], but I will study extremely hard for this one, I guarantee,” he said. “Everything that I’m doing is going after one goal and that’s to win this game.

“Nothing takes the place of experience. To be able to get a playoff win last week and be in that atmosphere and to do it again seven days later, it’s big for everyone’s confidence.”

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