Bears Handle Saints, Make First Title Game Appearance in 21 Years

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 22, 2007; Page E01

CHICAGO, Jan. 21 -- By the end of the night, the flakes fluttered gently in the lights and all of Soldier Field looked like a snow globe turned right side up again.

In the final moments of the NFC championship game, as the players dumped a bucket of Gatorade on Coach Lovie Smith and the fans danced in the stands, it must have seemed like magic to the Chicago Bears.

Rex Grossman
Rex Grossman completes 11 of 26 passes for 144 yards and one touchdown on a snowy Chicago day. (Nick Laham - Getty Images)

There was Smith in the middle of his dream, an African American man in a game that has not given many opportunities to African American men to hold its highest title of on-field authority. Three years ago the Bears did just that. On the night he became the first black man to make the Super Bowl with a 39-14 victory over the Saints, before being joined hours later by Indianapolis Coach Tony Dungy, he looked through the snow and laughed.

And there was Rex Grossman, the besieged quarterback who has drawn the scorn of the city with some of the worst regular season performances a quarterback has ever had. Yet in the storm of hate in Chicago, Smith stayed with the player the fans most wanted benched.

This night was his redemption, too.

The coach who finally got his chance and the quarterback he wouldn't throw away stood in the snowfall, with the roar all around and they smiled into the night.

"It means quite a bit for me being the coach of the Chicago Bears and being able to lead our team to another Super Bowl," Smith said when asked about advancing to the Super Bowl. "But being the first black coach to lead his team, of course our players knew about that, and they wanted to help us make history today. So I feel blessed to be in that position."

Then he grinned and said, "I'll feel even better to be the first black coach to hold up the world championship trophy."

There was an edge to the Bears at the end of their vanquishing of New Orleans. For weeks they had heard they were a fragile team, that their 13-3 regular season record was something of a farce and when they almost lost to Seattle in a playoff game last Sunday, many didn't give them a chance of beating the Saints. This simmered with them and left many testy about the subject after Sunday's game was over.

When one man asked Smith in his news conference about all the people who had not picked the Bears, Smith looked at the man and said, "You were one of them."

Yes, they enjoyed beating the Saints very much. Right from the start the Bears defense came thundering after New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees and his receivers, trying to take away the big plays that make them dangerous. The plan worked. A Marques Colston fumble led to a Chicago field goal at the end of the first quarter. A Michael Lewis fumble on the ensuing kickoff created yet another field goal and two stalled Saints drives created two more scoring opportunities that put the Bears up 16-0 before New Orleans ever truly moved the ball.

In fact they never trailed. The Saints challenged, pushing to within two points after an 88-yard touchdown by Reggie Bush on a short pass play that ended with the New Orleans running back doing a flying somersault into the end zone. But that was as close as they got. At the end of the third quarter, Grossman lobbed a long pass toward the end zone that receiver Bernard Berrian grabbed over the desperate hands of a flailing Fred Thomas for a touchdown and the Saints were essentially done.

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