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NFC Championship: Bears 39, Saints 14

By Barry Wilner

Associated Press

CHICAGO — The Chicago Bears know how to make a Super Bowl memorable. They’re making this one historic long before it’s played.

Dissed all season long, Rex Grossman and Co. are heading to the big game for the first time since 1985 after rolling over the New Orleans Saints 39-14 Sunday, and Da Coach leading them there makes it all the more special.

Lovie Smith’s arrival in Miami will make him the first black head coach to reach the marquee game in its 41 years.

“I’ll feel even better to be the first black coach to hold up the world championship trophy,” Smith said after the Bears won the NFC championship.

This isn’t the wild bunch, led by coach Mike Ditka and quarterbacked by Jim McMahon, that paraded down Bourbon Street, then routed New England for the championship 21 years ago. Its defense isn’t overpowering, its quarterback isn’t a renegade, its reputation isn’t celebrated.

This team, despite its impressive record, was maligned all season and never possessed the overpowering aura of Ditka’s gang.

Still, Smith’s team did it in true Bears fashion, with big plays on defense and a steady running game in the sleet and snow, ending the Saints’ uplifting saga.

The Bears (15-3) will play either the Patriots or the Indianapolis Colts, in Miami in two weeks. A Colts victory would put two black head coaches in the big game for the first time; Indy coach Tony Dungy was Smith’s mentor.

“I am really into the great tradition we have with the Chicago Bears,” Smith said. “I am just trying to get our football team up to that same standard Mike had his team at, especially that ’85 team.”

Added All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher: “For our franchise, this is big. They are a big part of this city, and what they did in ’85 is huge. We have an opportunity to do that right now. We’re excited to have the opportunity to kind of put the (’85) guys in the background for a little while.”

All the worries about how genuine the Bears’ outstanding season was disappeared thanks to running back Thomas Jones, All-Pro kicker Robbie Gould and a defense that, while not dominant, made enough decisive plays.

“I hate watching TV,” defensive end Adewale Ogunleye said, “but when you see everyone picking the Saints, the thing is we won 14 games, now 15, by playing sound defense and we have been doing a good job all season. We know they are coming in as a No. 1 offense and we stepped up to the plate.”

For a moment, though, in the third quarter they seemed to be in trouble.

Reggie Bush’s electrifying 88-yard touchdown catch and dash to the end zone pulled the Saints within two points, 16-14. But from then on, Urlacher and the Bears’ defense took over.

Chicago, which has won nine NFL titles but has been an also-ran for much of the last two decades, later went 85 yards in five plays in the worst of the weather. The oft-criticized Grossman had four completions, including a 33-yarder to a diving Bernard Berrian that clinched it, sending the bundled-up fans in Soldier Field into foot-stomping hysteria and chants of “Super Bowl, Super Bowl.”

“We had a great game today,” said Grossman, who was 11-for-26 for 144 yards, but made no mistakes. “This is great and all, but we have one game to go.”

Jones had all 69 yards on an eight-play ground drive in the second quarter, scored twice and rushed for 123 yards. Gould nailed three field goals.

The Bears, who led the league with 44 takeaways, forced four turnovers, and when NFC passing leader Drew Brees fumbled less than a minute after Berrian’s TD, whatever karma the Saints (11-7) carried this season disappeared.

It took New Orleans only 2:40 into the third quarter to make it 16-14 on Bush’s spectacular 88-yard touchdown that ended with a couple of bush moves. The rookie beat Chris Harris off the line, ignored the sleet and extended for Brees’ looping pass. Then he sped down the left sideline and, at midfield, used one of those Heisman jukes past Danieal Manning.

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