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 CHICAGO (AP) -As the snow and sleet fell from the sky on a wintry January day 11 months ago, the New Orleans Saints and Chicago Bears were playing for a trip to the Super Bowl.
The Bears embraced the elements and parlayed four turnovers into a 39-14 victory that saw the Saints' Reggie Bush do a somersault at the end of a spectacular 88-yard TD run.
But there has been very little to flip over or celebrate this season - for the Saints or Bears. Their meeting in the NFC championship game seems really far removed going into Sunday's season finale on the same field.
The Saints (7-8) can still get back to the playoffs as a wild card if they win and both the Redskins and Vikings lose later in the day, but the Bears (6-9) were eliminated from playoff contention two games ago.
``It's unfortunate, the seasons we've both had. The expectations for both of us were much higher than it what it turned out to be. But the fact is we still have an opportunity,'' Saints quarterback Drew Brees said.
Brees has rebounded from a shaky start when he threw nine interceptions and just one TD pass in an 0-4 start. Since that early stretch, he's hit for 24 TDs with just seven interceptions.
Last week, Brees became the 12th player in NFL history with multiple 4,000-yard passing seasons. He is completing a career-best 68.6 percent of passes and is 10 completions away from the NFL single-season record (Rich Gannon with 418 in 2002).
But returning to the playoffs would be more pleasing to him. To get in, New Orleans will need help from the Cowboys against the Redskins and the Broncos against the Vikings.
So, where did it go so wrong for two teams that were the best in their conference last year?
``What a difference a year can make. Who knew we'd be here? They're struggling to make it into the playoffs and we're trying to keep them out of the playoffs,'' said Bears Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs, who might be in his final game with Chicago.
What happened to the Saints?
``What happened to us?'' Briggs replied. ``Whatever happened to them, they were able to get more wins than us.''
The Saints are coming off a disheartening 38-23 loss to the Eagles and are saddled with injuries to key players such as defensive back Mike McKenzie, Bush and running back Deuce McAllister, who's been on injured reserve since early in the season. The slow start has forced them to play uphill all season.
``I'm sure both teams are disappointed. When you looked at the schedule at the start of the year, you were hopeful that this game was going to have some pretty significant meaning,'' Saints coach Sean Payton said.
``It still is an important game for both teams as we finish the season, but it's hard to predict year in and year out the direction you're going. You can't necessarily pick up where you left off. There were a number of games this year we weren't able to finish, and that's why we're sitting in this position of 7-8.''
The Saints' downfall can also be related to the inability of its draft picks to make a major impact, with Usama Young the only 2007 pick who plays regularly.
The Bears have had a long list of injuries, as well, but played their best game of the season last week by routing the NFC North champion Packers 35-7. They've given Kyle Orton - like Brees, a former Purdue quarterback - a shot the last three games as they hope to sort out a murky future at quarterback that once seemed so bright.
``It's been a long season,'' Bears special teams Pro Bowler Brendon Ayanbadejo said. ``All those feelings of sadness and all those bad feelings, the bad taste in our mouth, that all happened as the losses accumulated. So it's the time of the season where you want to get it over, end on a positive note, and get rolling into the 2008 season.''
Bears coach Lovie Smith sees similarities between two teams who were squaring off for the NFC title about 11 months ago.
``If you look at their record and how it all plays out, there are very few blowouts,'' Smith said.
``A play here or there dictates exactly what the outcome of the game will be. Some years you get those breaks and some you don't. I think that's what it says. I think all teams are close still. We're going to say the same thing. We're close, but we lost too many games.''
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