The New Orleans Saints have overcome the odds from the moment that the 2006 season started, and with a road win Sunday in Chicago can advance to the SuperBowl for the first time in their teams history. For the Bears, 2006 started with a bang, then it was a bump in the road before getting back to form that has now advanced them to one game of playing for the sports biggest prize. That is the backdrop for what should be an exciting NFC Championship Game Sunday at Soldier Field as the Bears at 14-3 host the 11-6 New Orleans Saints.
Last week the Saints overcame an 8-point second half deficit to the Philadelphia Eagles in pulling out a 27-24 win at the SuperDome to advance to the title game. In Chicago, the Bears needed overtime against a scrappy bunch of Seattle Seahawks, but a key third-down pass play opened the door in OT and Robbie Gould kicked it in with a 49-yard field goal to lift the Bears to a 27-24 win. The Bears had to rally in the 4th quarter with a game-tying field goal, but in the end were able to muster up enough on both sides of the ball to get it done.
Right off the bat, I don’t like this matchup for the Bears. Their once unstoppable defense has not been nearly as good as it was over the first two months of the season at Soldier Field. Consider the numbers: the Bears were 4-0 in their first four home games, beating the Lions, Seahawks, Bills and 49’ers. In those games, they allowed a total on defense of 882 yards, or 220 per game. Then, starting with a loss 31-13 to the Dolphins on November 5th, they went just 2-2 at home in their last four games, and allowed a total of 1376 yards, or an average of 344 yards per game. That’s over 120 yards per game allowed more on defense in their last four home games than their first four. Then last week against a Seattle offense that had some lingering injuries, they allowed them to score 24 points and put up 306 yards.
The matchup of the Saints offense vs that Bears defense is what really has me thinking of a Saints victory here. The Saints have two solid running backs, solid position players at wide out, and a QB that is playing better than Matt Hassleback was last week when he almost led the upset for the Hawks over the Bears. Brees has been the spark plug for the Saints, throwing for 243 yards and a TD in the win last week over the Eagles. Brees threw for 4.418 yards this season, with 26 TD’s and only 11 picks. He does not force the ball in, and in order for the Bears to win this game they are going to have to pressure him and force him into some mistakes. Look for Brees to use RB’s Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush as safety valves out of the backfield a lot, which can result in big plays for the Saints. New Orleans has two solid backs that can also carry the ball, as last week against the weak Eagles run defense they put up 208 yards on the ground, or 5.6 yards per carry. Don’t expect to see those type of gaudy numbers against a Bears run D that allowed 99 yards per game, but if they can make some plays, that will open up the rest of the offense for Brees to work his magic.
The Saints offense averaged close to 26 points per game, and with it close to 400 yards of offense per game. They need to put up similar numbers here if they are going to pull off the upset. They played tight at times Saturday vs the Eagles, and cannot on the road afford to fall behind by a touchdown or more if they think they are going to stay in the game. The weather is going to benefit the Bears, as there is a possibility of snow and temps will be in the 30’s, so a fast start for the Saints is going to be even more important. On the offensive side for the Bears, quarterback Rex Grossman came to play last week, and was 21-for-38 for 282 yards and one TD. He did have a tendency of throwing a bit behind the receivers, and that is what led to the one INT on a ball that bounced off his wide outs shoulder pads. With the up and down season that Grossman has had, this week the pressure will be on him even more, and he cannot afford to have a let down after a solid game a week ago.
The Bears can run on the Saints, and should use a steady diet of Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson to wear down the front four of the Saints. Last week vs the patched up Hawks D, the Bears run game accounted for 120 yards on 34 carries, a 3.5 yards per carry average. Their longest run play was just 12 yards, but they kept going to the run instead of forcing the pass, which I thought was a key to open up the passing game as the game got tighter and tighter. The Saints gave up about 129 yards per game on the ground, and if the Bears are patient enough to use Jones and Benson enough, that will give them the best chance to win.
Chicago also has a decided home field advantage at Soldier Field. The weather should play a factor, and as stated above, the Saints cannot play around and find themselves behind, or the Bears will smell blood and go for the kill. The Hawks played it just about perfect last Sunday, staying in the game, and even taking a lead midway though the fourth quarter before the Bears made enough plays to win. The Saints were 6-2 on the road this year, as compared to just 4-4 in the regular season at home. So it appears that Sean Peyton knows how to get his team ready to play on the road. The pressure will be on the Bears as the favorite, and Lovie Smith has got to come up with a solid game plan to stop Brees and the two-back combo of McAllister and Bush.
This is a tough game to call, just like the AFC Title game in Indy. The Bears have been the driving force in the NFC from early in the season, while the Saints have just kept shocking people and gaining momentum as the year has gone along. There is something special about this Saints team that tells me that they have the mojo that can get the job done. Their offense is full of playmakers, and I think their defense is going to pressure Rex Grossman enough into a few mistakes. Bears fans have waited a long time for a home NFC Championship Game, but I think that come Sunday evening they are going to be leaving Soldier Field stunned by the Saints.
New Orleans 24 Chicago 21