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Saints' magic-carpet ride hits a stone wall in Chicago

1/22/2007

CHICAGO (AP) -- The Chicago Bears know how to make a Super Bowl
memorable. They're making this one historic long before it's
played.

Dissed all season long, Rex Grossman and Co. are heading to the
big game for the first time since 1985 after rolling over the New Orleans Saints 39-14 Sunday, and Da Coach leading them there makes
it all the more special.

Lovie Smith became the first black head coach to reach the NFL's
marquee game in its 41-year history and roughly four hours later,
his good pal and mentor Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts joined
him.

"I'll feel even better to be the first black coach to hold up
the world championship trophy," Smith said after the Bears won the
NFC championship.

This isn't the wild bunch, led by coach Mike Ditka and
quarterbacked by Jim McMahon, that paraded down Bourbon Street,
then routed New England for the championship 21 years ago. Its
defense isn't overpowering, its quarterback isn't a renegade, its
reputation isn't celebrated.

This team, despite its impressive record, was maligned all
season and never possessed the overpowering aura of Ditka's gang.

Still, Smith's team did it in true Bears fashion, with big plays
on defense and a steady running game in the sleet and snow, ending
the Saints' uplifting saga.

The Colts (15-4) opened as a one-touchdown favorite over the
Bears (15-3) in their matchup at Miami in two weeks. Indianapolis
beat New England 38-34 for the AFC title.

"I am really into the great tradition we have with the Chicago
Bears," Smith said. "I am just trying to get our football team up
to that same standard Mike had his team at, especially that '85
team."

Added All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher: "For our franchise,
this is big. They are a big part of this city, and what they did in
'85 is huge. We have an opportunity to do that right now. We're
excited to have the opportunity to kind of put the ['85] guys in
the background for a little while."

All the worries about how genuine the Bears' outstanding season
was disappeared thanks to running back Thomas Jones, All-Pro kicker
Robbie Gould and a defense that, while not dominant, made enough
decisive plays.

"I hate watching TV," defensive end Adewale Ogunleye said,
"but when you see everyone picking the Saints, the thing is we won
14 games, now 15, by playing sound defense and we have been doing a
good job all season. We know they are coming in as a No. 1 offense
and we stepped up to the plate."

For a moment, though, in the third quarter they seemed to be in
trouble.

Reggie Bush's electrifying 88-yard touchdown catch and dash to
the end zone pulled the Saints within two points, 16-14. But from
then on, Urlacher and the Bears' defense took over.

Chicago, which has won nine NFL titles but has been an also-ran
for much of the last two decades, later went 85 yards in five plays
in the worst of the weather. The oft-criticized Grossman had four
completions, including a 33-yarder to a diving Bernard Berrian that
clinched it, sending the bundled-up fans in Soldier Field into
foot-stomping hysteria and chants of "Super Bowl, Super Bowl."

"We had a great game today," said Grossman, who was 11-for-26
for 144 yards, but made no mistakes. "This is great and all, but
we have one game to go."

Jones had all 69 yards on an eight-play ground drive in the
second quarter, scored twice and rushed for 123 yards. Gould nailed
three field goals.

The Bears, who led the league with 44 takeaways, forced four
turnovers, and when NFC passing leader Drew Brees fumbled less than
a minute after Berrian's TD, whatever karma the Saints (11-7)
carried this season disappeared.

"We talked a lot about getting back to what we do and that's
getting takeaways," Smith said.

Cedric Benson then scored on a 12-yard run, and from there it
was a matter of searching for the sunscreen.

Smith and Bears owner Virginia McCaskey, daughter of Bears
founder George Halas, accepted the Halas Trophy moments after
Grossman tossed the ball deep into the stands after the final
kneel-down.

"This is why we play the game, to get to the Super Bowl and
win," Urlacher said. "This overshadows everything."

It was a bitter, sloppy conclusion to the Saints' remarkable
turnaround from a nomadic 3-13 season in the aftermath of Hurricane
Katrina's destruction to this winning season. As their city
rebuilds, the team has provided an inspiring respite in the
recovery story.

This was the first trip this far into the playoffs for the
40-year-old franchise, previously best known as the Aints, whose
fans wore paper bags on their heads because the team was so bad.

"Just to be able to turn this organization around a bit from
where it was last year is saying a lot," Bush said. "We don't
need to hang our heads about anything. ... We need to use this as
motivation to come back and get to this point again next year and,
hopefully, get to the Super Bowl."

Down 16-0 and throttled for 28 minutes, the Saints awakened late
in the first half on a 29-yard third-down completion to
Marques Colston, who previously had several drops and several more slips.
Brees threw a pair of sideline darts and Colston beat
Charles Tillman for a 13-yard TD that temporarily changed the flow with 46
seconds remaining in the half.

It took New Orleans only 2:40 into the third quarter to make it
16-14 on Bush's spectacular 88-yard touchdown that ended with a
couple of bush moves. The rookie beat Chris Harris off the line,
ignored the sleet and extended for Brees' looping pass. Then he
sped down the left sideline and, at midfield, used one of those
Heisman jukes past Danieal Manning.

As Bush neared the end zone, he turned and pointed tauntingly at
the hopelessly trailing Urlacher before somersaulting into the end
zone.

"I apologized to [coach Sean Payton] about that," Bush said.
"Obviously, I know I made a mistake, but I'm not going to kill
myself over it. ... You move on."

That hot-dogging wasn't close to Brees' mistake in the end zone.
Under pressure but still in the pocket, he threw the ball away,
causing a safety.

That erased any momentum for the Saints, and Chicago scored on
Berrian's brilliant catch at the 2; he was not tackled down and
stood up to cross the goal line.

A Chicago blitz stymied New Orleans' opening drive. After Devery Henderson outfought Tillman for a 40-yard pass to the Bears' 32, an
all-out rush on third down led to a sack by Israel Idonije and a
Saints punt into the end zone.

It set a first-half trend.

Another sack, by rookie Mark Anderson, Chicago's top pass rusher
this season, was even more embarrassing to the Saints. Brees lost
the ball and a Keystone Kops chase for it wound up in a 25-yard
loss when rookie guard Jahri Evans recovered.

But Chicago's offense went nowhere.

So the defense got things started. Harris stripped the ball from
Colston and Tillman returned it to the Saints' 36. After getting
their initial first down on a 16-yard reverse by Rashied Davis, the
Bears gambled on fourth-and-1 at the 4 and Benson converted.

But all they got was Gould's 19-yard field goal.

New Orleans remained charitable, and Adrian Peterson stripped
kickoff returner Michael Lewis at the Saints' 30. Sean Payton lost
a video challenge, and Gould hit from 43.

The sloppy footing was an issue all during the game,
particularly once the cold rain, followed by sleet and snow, began
falling. Runners, receivers and returners kept slipping and areas
of the turf were gashed by halftime.

Gould's 24-yarder made it 9-0 and Jones had his personal
touchdown drive, with his 33-yard run the Bears' longest all
season.

Jones capped the ground march with a 2-yard run for a 16-0 lead.
He also scored from 15 yards in the fourth quarter.

"It couldn't have been a more perfect situation for Chicago
Bears football," Jones said. "Just perfect."

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