CHICAGO, JAN. 5 -- The beginning of the season started with Mike Ditka trying to convince a down and nearly out team of Chicago Bears they could return to the top of the Central Division. The end of the season finds the Bears right where they've been five of the last six years, Central Division champions at Soldier Field for a playoff game (4 p.m. EDT, WUSA-TV-9). And now, Ditka has changed his tune.

"You always position yourself for this," he said. "The regular season means nothing. They don't give no trophies for the season. No rings, no awards, no money. The season puts you in position to say that you can accomplish something special. We got in position and New Orleans got in position. Once you make the playoffs, it becomes a second season and then anybody can do anything."

That might be stretching it a bit. Neither the Bears nor Saints are favored to make a run at the Super Bowl. But anything can happen. The Bears, who are 1-3 in postseason games since winning Super Bowl XX, are also 1-3 in their last four games of the regular season. They've lost four of six and their quarterback, Mike Tomczak, heard cheers last week when he was injured.

The Bears (11-5) were so leery of the injured Jim Harbaugh (separated shoulder) talking his way back into the lineup they put him on injured reserve. This means they will live and die with Neal Anderson and Brad Muster running the ball.

The Saints (8-8) have a young, slumping quarterback in Steve Walsh and a conservative coach in Jim Mora, which means they will rely on Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, Rueben Mayes and Gill Fenerty out of the backfield.

The similarities don't stop there. Each team's primary goal on offense will be to keep its quarterback from losing the game. The Bears, first in the league in rushing touchdowns, first in interceptions, second in time of possession and third in giveaway-takeaway, will try to win by not goofing up.

Anderson has a cracked rib, but it was worse last week when he carried 11 times for 62 yards against the Chiefs. It certainly won't be easy for Anderson and Muster to run against a Saints defense anchored by what may be the NFL's best group of linebackers (Pat Swilling, Vaughan Johnson, Rickey Jackson and Sam Mills).

No team in the NFC has forced more fumbles than the Saints, who are also sixth in the league against the run. So it figures to be a quickly played, three-yards-and-a-ball-of-snow-in-your-face kind of game.

Mora said earlier this week that his team was tired three seasons ago when it won the final nine games of the regular season, only to get blown out at home, 44-10, by the Vikings in a wild-card game. Mora says he didn't do anything to help his team win that game, hinting at working them too hard late in the season.

He said he will do things differently this time, but few expect him to have the second-year man, Walsh, come out winging against a secondary that helped Chicago to a league-leading 31 interceptions.

Tomczak is in his sixth year, and he led the Bears to their last playoff victory, over the Eagles in the Fog Bowl two years ago. But Tomczak has been a disaster in relief of Harbaugh, lashing out at the fans who booed him earlier this week.

"I think the booing puts added pressure on him," Ditka said. "He's trying to overcome. Therefore, you try to be a little more spectacular and that is what I don't want him to be. I want him to be good, old-fashioned Mike Tomczak from the South Side of Chicago, a good Polish young man, and just play tough. Put his high-tops on and go to work."

The teams play the same way, but the Saints won six of nine to get to the playoffs, including three pressure-packed games at San Francisco, at Los Angeles and at home against the Rams. The Bears haven't played a meaningful game in weeks. But the Bears have been in the playoffs six of the last seven years while New Orleans is making just its second postseason appearance.

"Everybody says that, but I hope" playoff experience isn't required for victory, Mora said, "because we've only been once in the history of the Saints."

Ditka, asked about his team's slide, said, "We are hitting the walls on our way in {to the playoffs} . . . But the last six weeks don't mean beans. We deserve to be here. Now we'll see if we deserve to go on."