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Behind a defense that forced four turnovers in the sleet and snow, Chicago routed the Saints 39-14 Sunday to win the NFC championship.
By Rick Stroud
Published January 22, 2007
CHICAGO - The Bears had a special way of embracing history. They wrapped their arms around it and slammed it to the turf, again and again.
Behind a defense that forced four turnovers in the sleet and snow, Chicago routed the Saints 39-14 Sunday to win the NFC championship and separate themselves from the lingering memory of the 1985 Bears team that shuffled its way to the Super Bowl championship.
Instead of Walter Payton, it was running back Thomas Jones who put the offense on his back and carried it for 123 yards and two touchdowns.
Where Mike Singletary used to hunt ballcarriers, linebacker Brian Urlacher led a swarming defense that produced a safety, an interception, four fumbles and recovered three.
Forget the punky Jim McMahon. It was maligned passer Rex Grossman who overcame a horrid start to finish with a flurry by completing his last six passes, including a 33-yard touchdown to Bernard Berrian.
This time it wasn't Mike Ditka handing the George S. Halas trophy to owner Virginia McCaskey, the daughter of the Bears' legendary coach. It was Lovie Smith, who became the first black head coach to lead a team to the Super Bowl in its 41-year history.
"I tell you, it doesn't get any better than that," said Smith, 48, who was the Bucs linebackers coach from 1996-2000. "Going into this week, we heard a lot. We went into the game with the best record in the National Football League and we really didn't get a lot of respect. Not many people gave us a chance to win the football game. But our guys didn't buy into that. They bought into each other, had a lot of faith in each other and of course this is where we end up."
Of course, that destination is Super Bowl XLI, Feb. 4 in Miami, against Indianapolis.
The best way to honor the past was to win in fabled Bears fashion, with a suffocating defense, a dominating ground game and in weather that tested the most grizzled Chicago super fan.
The Bears took a 16-0 lead on three Robbie Gould field goals and Jones' 2-yard touchdown run, a drive in which the one-time Buc's number was called all eight times and he responded with 69 yards on a draw play called 42 Mike.
The Saints entered the game as the feel-good story of the NFL, a vagabond franchise left homeless by Hurricane Katrina 18 months ago then rebuilt faster than its ravaged city.
Quarterback Drew Brees, who passed for more than 4,000 yards, briefly led the Saints back by directing touchdown drives in the final possession of the first half and the first try in the second half.
Brees threw touchdowns of 13 yards to Marques Colston and 88 yards to Reggie Bush, who did most of the work with his legs. But the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner rankled the Bears defense by pointing at Urlacher before somersaulting into the end zone.
"Him going in, pointing, turning and flipping into the end zone ... if you're going to do that, be ready," Bears safety Chris Harris said. "It kind of lit a fire under everybody else who said we're not losing this game."
All last week, the Bears were peppered with questions about how to stop the Saints offense.
"It was a slap in the face, total disrespect," Harris said. "They are good, don't get it wrong. They're very good. They have a bunch of weapons on offense. But we're no slouch, either. We won 14 games up to this point. The question should've been how were they going to attack us, rather than how were we going to stop them."
The game turned on a safety in the third quarter when Brees, in his end zone, was called for intentional grounding after throwing the ball away to avoid a sack.
Grossman started the game 5-of-20 for 64 yards, but the Bears couldn't hide their beleaguered quarterback forever. After the safety, the former Florida Gator went 6-for-6 for 80 yards and a touchdown, completing all four of his attempts and the 33-yard scoring strike to Berrian.
So now these Bears have a chance at a legacy of their own. They no longer have to walk in the footprints of the 1985 team.
"I think it is a distraction to a degree because so many people refer to it, talk about it," defensive coordinator Ron Rivera said of the '85 Bears. "But in the same respect, when we first got together way back when we said let's look at the past, let's honor the past and start making a little of our own history. And now we have a chance."
Rick Stroud can be reached at email@example.com
[Last modified January 22, 2007, 00:19:13]