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NFL PLAYOFFS / CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIPS

As snow falls, Bears cut the Saints' dance short

Chicago defense holds firm after Bush's 88-yard scoring play, and Grossman's timely passes cue a 39-14 win.

January 22, 2007|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — Quarterback Rex Grossman, who has dealt with more than his fair share of criticism this season, did not have a great game statistically against New Orleans in the NFC championship game on Sunday.

He completed less than half of his passes and threw for only 144 yards, but Grossman proved to be a difference maker for the Chicago Bears, who pulled away behind his second-half play to defeat the Saints, 39-14, in front of a sellout crowd of 61,817 at snowy Soldier Field.

"Rex won the game for us, plain and simple," Chicago tight end Desmond Clark said. "He took control when we needed him to in the fourth quarter. Everyone on the team is so happy for him."

In leading the Bears to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1985 season, Grossman didn't do anything spectacular, but he completed key throws on a touchdown drive when the outcome was in doubt.

With Chicago clinging to an 18-14 lead late in the third quarter, Grossman completed four consecutive passes, including three to wide receiver Bernard Berrian, on a five-play, 85-yard drive. Grossman finished the possession with a 33-yard touchdown pass to a diving Berrian, who had beaten New Orleans cornerback Fred Thomas, to give the Bears a commanding 25-14 lead early in the fourth quarter.

"It doesn't get any better than this right now," said Grossman, who improved to 19-7 all-time as a starter for Chicago. "I'm excited about the position we're in right now. Redemption and all that, I mean that's for you guys to write about."

Running back Thomas Jones rushed for 123 yards and two touchdowns and backup Cedric Benson added 60 yards and a score for the Bears (15-3), who outrushed New Orleans, 196 yards to 56.

New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees completed 27 of 49 passes for 354 yards and two touchdowns, but he did not get much help from running back Deuce McAlister, who gained 18 yards in six carries. Former USC Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush, who scored on an 88-yard pass play in the third quarter, finished with 161 yards in total offense.

Throughout the season, the Bears' formula to reach the Super Bowl was anything but complicated: Play strong defense, run the football and minimize mistakes on offense.

It's a plan that they followed again against the Saints, who made too many errors in their first appearance in a conference championship game.

New Orleans had four turnovers and was penalized seven times for 47 yards. The Bears did not turn the ball over and were penalized just once for five yards.

"It's too easy to say we just turned it over," New Orleans Coach Sean Payton said. "Those turnovers were forced. You have to give credit to Chicago.

"When you get to this point in the playoffs, you have to play well on the road, especially against a team like the Bears. We didn't do that."

Whereas Chicago stuck with a strategy it used all season, the Saints played like a team unsure of itself for much of the game.

New Orleans took the opening kickoff and drove to the Bears' 30-yard line before Brees was sacked, which took the Saints out of field-goal range. The next time they had the ball, the Saints again moved into Chicago territory and were again stalled by the Bears' pass rush, which forced a Brees fumble that ended up as a 25-yard loss.

The first points of the game were set up by the Bears' defense. Late in the first quarter, Brees completed a pass to Marques Colston, who was stripped of the ball by safety Chris Harris. Chicago cornerback Nathan Vasher returned the fumble to the Saints' 36 to set up a 19-yard field goal by Robbie Gould.

On the ensuing kickoff, New Orleans gave the ball back when returner Michael Lewis fumbled at the Saints' 30. That led to a 43-yard field goal by Gould that gave Chicago a 6-0 lead.

In the second quarter, the Bears took a 9-0 lead when Gould kicked a 24-yard field goal and stretched the lead to 16-0 when Jones scored on a two-yard run.

"Our running game was unbelievable," said Grossman, who completed only three of 12 passes for 37 yards in the first half. "We ran it right down their throat in the second quarter to put us ahead, 16-0. At that point we had momentum."

That was until Brees led the Saints on an eight-play, 73-yard drive that was capped with his 13-yard touchdown pass play to Colston to cut Chicago's lead to 16-7 at halftime. In the third quarter, Brees hooked up with Bush, who weaved through, outran and then pointed back at the Bears' defense on his way to the touchdown, which he capped by a flip into the end zone.

Bush said he apologized to Payton about that. "Obviously I know I made a mistake, but I'm not going to kill myself over it," he told the Associated Press.

Not long after, the Bears began to dominate field position.

After a punt pinned New Orleans deep in its own territory, Brees was called for grounding the ball in the end zone when he tried to avoid the Bears' Lance Briggs. The safety gave Chicago an 18-14 lead and set the stage for Grossman.

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