|NFC Championship Game Preview: New Orleans at Chicago|
|Written by TheSpread|
|Sunday, 21 January 2007 05:03|
NFC Championship: Saints at Bears - Saints Favored
For the New Orleans Saints to continue their dream season and reach the Super Bowl, they'll have to defeat the Chicago Bears and their ferocious defense at what's likely to be a cold and raucous Soldier Field on Sunday.
The Saints and NFL Coach of the Year Sean Payton, however, will appreciate every moment of the opportunity.
New Orleans looks to earn its first trip to the Super Bowl when it takes on Chicago in the NFC championship game.
Payton and the Saints' magical run has come in a year in which no one expected them to be more than a rebuilding team. One trying season removed from being displaced from their home city and watching the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina unfold before them, the Saints have rebounded from a 3-13 record in 2005 to go 11-6 and reach the conference title game with a 27-24 victory over Philadelphia last week.
The Saints became the first team in NFL history to make a conference championship after losing 13 or more games the previous season - and doing it in New Orleans, a city still trying to recover from Katrina, was especially gratifying.
"It means everything," rookie running back Reggie Bush said. "All that stuff we went through as a team, these are the type of games we live for. And this game is even bigger for the city."
The Saints are a team with unique perspective, having helped provide relief to desperate residents following the hurricane, and witnessing death and chaos in the city while trying to concentrate on football after being forced from the Superdome during the 2005 season.
Having gone through that, the Saints only appreciate what they've accomplished more.
"You understand and appreciate that there are a lot of things that go on to get to this point," said Payton, the former New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys assistant. "It's important to take advantage of the opportunities and to understand that when it's in front of you, it's hard to get here and hard to be in these games. ... That's what probably makes it so gratifying."
Prognosticators universally picked the Saints to finish at the bottom of the NFC South, putting little stock in the Heisman Trophy winner Bush's ability to make a difference in his first season, or the signing of free-agent quarterback Drew Brees, who was coming off shoulder surgery.
Brees turned out to make the biggest difference, throwing for an NFL-best 4,418 yards, 26 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. He finished third in the league in quarterback rating (96.2) and touchdowns.
Brees was 20-for-32 for 243 yards, one TD and no interceptions against the Eagles, and Bush turned in several flashy plays as he continued to complement workhorse back Deuce McAllister, who pounded Philadelphia for two scores and a team playoff-record 143 yards rushing.
New Orleans had never reached the NFC title game, and was 1-5 in the playoffs coming into last week. The city is known for hosting the Super Bowl - not sending its own team to it.
"There's still a lot of work to be done," Payton said. "We just hope we can put a little kick in (the fans') step Monday and Tuesday, and give them something to look forward to next weekend."
For the party to continue in New Orleans, however, the Saints will have to produce more magic when they face the Bears, also a hungry team that's looking to return to the Super Bowl for the first time since winning it in 1986. Chicago reached the NFC championship game for the first time since 1989 with a 27-24 overtime victory over Seattle on Sunday.
Robbie Gould's 49-yard field goal in the extra period followed his tying 41-yarder with just under 6 minutes left in regulation as Chicago (14-3), the NFC's top seed, survived to defeat the Seahawks.
"It's been fun," said Gould, who was undrafted out of Penn State and waived by two teams before making the Pro Bowl this season. "I think it's been great for everybody. It's been great for the city."
Chicago's hard-hitting and speedy defense wasn't at its best, allowing Shaun Alexander to rush for 108 yards, but it stopped the star running back on third and fourth downs late in the fourth quarter as the Seahawks were driving for a potential go-ahead score.
It's possible, though, that no player enjoyed the victory more than quarterback Rex Grossman, who overcame a season of criticism from Chicago's demanding fans to produce the best game of his career. He went 21-of-38 for 282 yards, and set up Gould's winning kick with a third-down pass of 30 yards to Rashied Davis that moved the Bears to the Seattle 36.
"We win one game and we're in the Super Bowl," said Grossman, who also had an interception and a fumble, "two wins away from having a ring on my finger for the rest of my life."
Grossman was sacked three times under heavy pressure from Seattle, and he's likely to see more of it Sunday from New Orleans. Led by Will Smith (10 1/2 sacks), Charles Grant (6.0), Brian Young (5 1/2) and Scott Shanle (4.0), the Saints are sure to try and get to Grossman whenever they can.
Stopping the opposing quarterback will be an even bigger priority for Chicago, although it remains to be seen whether Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman and the rest of the Bears' third-ranked defense will come after Brees or play back more in coverage to try and disrupt the accurate quarterback's rhythm.
The Bears will have to account for the running and pass-catching ability of Bush out of the backfield, as well as McAllister's bruising work between the tackles.
Temperatures aren't expected to rise above the mid-30s Sunday, with possible snow in the forecast, but those conditions may not necessarily give the Bears an advantage even though they're facing a dome team. The Saints have won three of their last four visits to Soldier Field, and five of the last seven overall. Chicago, though, took the last matchup 20-17 at Baton Rouge on Nov. 6, 2005.New Orleans and Chicago have met once in the playoffs, a 16-6 Bears victory on Jan. 6, 1991, in the wild-card round at Soldier Field.
By: Michael Cash - theSpread.com - Email Us
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