- The Washington Times - Monday, January 22, 2007

CHICAGO — Following a dominating opening 28 minutes, the Chicago Bears’ defense suddenly looked vulnerable in yesterday’s NFC Championship game at snowy Solider Field.

Touchdown drives of 73 and 93 yards had transferred momentum to the New Orleans Saints. Bears quarterback Rex Grossman was consistently misfiring, and Chicago was on the verge of blowing a 16-point lead.

Then the Bears’ defense made the kind of play that wins trophies.

Pressured by three Chicago players, Saints quarterback Drew Brees threw incomplete from his own end zone, resulting in an intentional grounding penalty and a safety for the Bears.

Momentum shifted back to the Bears and, soon after, the conference crown came back to Chicago after a 21-year hiatus.

Buoyed by the safety — only the second in 37 NFC title games — and four takeaways, the Bears defeated upstart New Orleans 39-14 to clinch a berth in Super Bowl XLI in Miami on Feb. 4 against the Indianapolis Colts.

“A huge play,” Chicago linebacker Brian Urlacher said of the safety. “We got pressure on the first play, and he just got rid of it. We had given up some good plays, but we kept playing hard.”

And for the most part playing well. Although Grossman was uneven (11-for-26 for 144 yards), the defense and running game picked up the slack.

The Saints had only 56 yards rushing and made just five of 13 third-down conversions. Led by Thomas Jones’ 123 yards, Chicago totaled 196 yards on the ground.

After seeing their 16-0 lead shrink to two points after touchdown passes by Brees of 13 yards to Marques Colston and 88 yards to Reggie Bush, the Bears scored the final 23 points.

In positioning themselves for a second Super Bowl title, the Bears also made Lovie Smith the first black coach to lead his team to the sport’s ultimate game. The Colts’ Tony Dungy became the second later in the day.

“Our players knew about it and they wanted to help us make history,” Smith said. “I feel blessed to be in that position, but I’ll feel even better to be the first black coach to [hold] up the world championship trophy.”

The Bears, despite their 15-3 record, are seven-point underdogs in Miami. And that’s fine with them. Despite being tabbed as slight favorites against the Saints, the prevailing thought among NFL circles was that the Saints’ offense — the best in the league during the regular season — would be too much for a Bears defense that had struggled down the stretch without Tommie Harris and Mike Brown.

A week after New Orleans abused Philadelphia for 435 yards and 19 plays of at least 10 yards, the Saints had 375 yards and 14 plays of at least 10 yards.

“It seemed like we were an underdog, and I think our guys took that personally,” Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera said. “They came out with a great attitude and played hard. We gave up some big plays but, for the most part, weathered the storm. The guys did a tremendous job.”

The Saints, appearing in their first conference title game, ended their season 11-7. New Orleans was 3-13 last year, but a new coaching staff and almost 50 percent turnover on its roster propelled it to its first playoff appearance since the 2000 season.

“There was the point in the third quarter where the momentum shifted in our favor, but we just couldn’t capitalize on that,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We have a lot of young players and character in our locker room, and that makes it much more difficult to lose.”

New Orleans dug itself a hole that could have been much worse. The Bears had to settle for three field goals by Robbie Gould to lead 9-0 before Jones carried on every snap of an eight-play, 69-yard drive, capping it with a 2-yard run with 1:56 remaining in the first half.

The Saints answered before halftime with Colston’s touchdown catch. On the opening drive of the third quarter, Brees — from his own 12 — lofted a pass to Bush, who caught it in stride at the 29 and scored the longest touchdown in NFC title game history. On his way to the end zone, Bush turned and pointed at Urlacher.

“That [ticked] me off,” Bears defensive end Adewale Ogunleye said. “To turn around and taunt Brian — and basically taunt this whole team — was a slap in the face.”

Chicago eventually got even. After the Saints’ Billy Cundiff missed a 47-yard field goal that would have given New Orleans its first lead, the Bears pressured Brees into the safety. On the play, Brees (27-for-49 for 354 yards) said the Bears sent so many blockers, his two outlet receivers ended up in pass protection.

“We knew we were going to get another surge from them, but unfortunately we couldn’t counter with anything effective,” Brees said.

Up 18-14, the Bears put the game away early in the fourth quarter when Berrian got behind Saints cornerback Fred Thomas, corralled Grossman’s underthrown pass as he was falling at the 2-yard line, then got back on his feet and scrambled to the end zone.

The Bears will need those types of plays in two weeks. Although they were better yesterday than against Seattle last week, another upgrade in performance will be required if they’re going to beat the Colts.

“All you want is the opportunity,” Smith said, “and we now have an opportunity to achieve our goal.”

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