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Opportunity hits home for Bears

They lost at Soldier Field in the divisional round last year, so Saints offer a shot at redemption.

January 21, 2007|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — The Chicago Bears worked hard during the regular season to gain home-field advantage in the playoffs and they hope it pays off today when they play host to the New Orleans Saints in the NFC championship game at Soldier Field.

"Our formula for winning football games includes the three phases: offense, defense and special teams," Coach Lovie Smith told reporters last week. "But here in Chicago we talk about the fourth phase also: our fans. I think it matters playing at home. We're excited about playing at home this week."

The Bears, who finished the regular season 13-3 and defeated Seattle last week in a divisional playoff game, are determined to prevent a repeat of last year when Chicago lost at home to Carolina in the divisional round.

"When I took the job, I said our ultimate goal was to win the world championship," said Smith, who is in his third season with the Bears. "Yes, we've talked about it all week."

But in order to reach the Super Bowl, the Bears will have to defeat the Saints, who were 10-6 during the regular season and are coming off an impressive victory over Philadelphia.

"This year, some things have happened for us and it's like, 'Wow, this may be destiny,' " New Orleans running back Deuce McAllister said after he rushed for 143 yards and two touchdowns against the Eagles a week ago.

However, this is the furthest the Saints have advanced in the playoffs, and they have not played a game outdoors since the day before Christmas. The Bears believe that they'll have an edge with today's weather forecast calling for snow, heavy winds and a temperature in the low 20s.

"I would love for it to be 5 degrees," running back Thomas Jones told the Chicago Sun-Times. "Not that we're used to playing in 5-degree weather, but we know what to expect.

"We're used to playing on our field ... it's kind of slick sometimes. And even our practice field [at Halas Hall] is pretty much the same as Soldier Field. So we're used to running on that. We know how to exactly approach each play. We know it will be slick. You have to put your feet together and have a nice base."

Coach Sean Payton said the Saints are ready for the weather challenge.

"My concern more is the footing. We've played before in cold weather," said Payton, who this week continued to hold practice indoors as the Saints have for most of the second half of the season.

"We'll be ready for the elements, and we'll adjust accordingly. We're kind of in a pretty good routine, and I kind of like the routine."

New Orleans, which had a 6-2 record on the road this season, defeated the New York Giants in East Rutherford, N.J., on Dec. 24 and are confident that playmakers such as quarterback Drew Brees and running back Reggie Bush will be able to handle the cold again.

"We've got a quarterback who's played in the Big Ten and understands the conditions," Payton said about Brees, who played at Purdue. "It is what you make of it."

Bush said he's not going to worry about the conditions.

"I'm just going to play football," he said. "Cold weather's not going to bother me. It's still a football field. It's still 100 yards. It's not going to change."

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lonnie.white@latimes.com

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