Most of the attention in the lead-up to this morning’s NFC Championship game was on the fairytale resurgence of the New Orleans Saints. The desire to see the Saints’ near-miraculous resurgence as analogous to the post-Katrina rehabilitation of their home city was overwhelming.
But another fable was being played out – the one where grit and persistence is finally rewarded. The Chicago Bears triumphed 39-14, and will play the winner of this afternoon’s (Australian time) AFC Championship match in the Super Bowl on 3 February.
The Chicago Bears have had ten losing seasons since 1992. Their head coach, Lovie Smith, is the lowest-paid in the NFL. In his first year with the Bears (2004) they went 5-11. The next season it was reversed, 11-5. This year the Bears earned NFC top seeding with a 13-3 season. Now they are off to the Super Bowl for just the second time.
The Bears’ triumph at snowy Soldier Field was based around stout defence which discouraged the Saints from even trying to run the ball, a determination to stick with a ground attack, and the resilience to withstand a mid-game New Orleans surge.
In difficult conditions the Bears opened the scoring with three consecutive Robbie Gould field goals, before Thomas Jones sealed a dominant drive with a touchdown run. Marques Colston opened the Saints’ scoring with a 13 yard touchdown catch, making it 16-7 at half-time.
Three minutes after the break the prodigious Reggie Bush careened to an 88 yard touchdown, the longest ever play in an NFC Championship game. Bush swung left on a smoke route, received the ball then made a decisive cut right and beat the Chicago defence with pure speed before somersaulting into the end-zone.
Momentum was all with the Saints – but this was as close as the visitors got. Snow began to fall more heavily, Drew Brees was charged with intentional grounding in the end zone for a safety, and in the last quarter the Bears nailed three touchdowns to put the result beyond doubt. Dome teams are now 0-10 since 1970 in Championship games played outdoors.
The vaunted Bears defence underpinned the win, although the ongoing debate about Rex Grossman’s worth as Bears quarterback will not have been quelled. The much maligned playmaker, the biggest whipping boy since Percy Grainger, finished with 11 from 26 for 144 yards and a touchdown. The Bears offence instead revolved around Jones (two touchdowns) and Cedric Benson (24 carries). The Bears rushed for 196 yards, the Saints for just 56.
Still, Lovie Smith has spent all season backing Grossman, and the ex-University of Florida star now gets a chance to strut his stuff back in Miami at Super Bowl 41.
If Indianapolis wins through to the decider then Tony Dungy will join Smith as the first African-American coaches to lead teams to the Super Bowl. If New England is the Bears’ opponent, then it will repeat football-mad Chicago’s only other Super Bowl appearance, in the 1985 season when they slaughtered the Patriots 46-10.