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'D' Bears head to Super Bowl XLI, win 39-14

CHICAGO (Jan. 21, 2007) -- Relax, Chicago. Rex Grossman and Da Bears are indeed good enough for this Super Bowl, and they've already made it a historic one.

Few teams with such an impressive record have been as questioned, even maligned as the Bears. Yet after romping past the New Orleans Saints 39-14, they are headed to their first NFL title game since the 1985 team overwhelmed the league and shuffled in under Mike Ditka and Jim McMahon.

This time, Lovie Smith will lead them there, the first black head coach to make it to the title game in its 41 years.

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

Smith's team did it in true Bears fashion -- 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 Indianapolis Colts (15-4), in Miami in two weeks. The game pits two black head coaches in the big game for the first time; Indy coach Tony Dungy was Smith's mentor.

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 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: "We knew what the experts said. It didn't matter. This is a great team win for our franchise."

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. 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.

Cedric Benson scored on a 12-yard run, and from there it was a matter of searching for the sunscreen.

Smith and Bears owner Virginia McCaskey, daughter of Bears founder George Halas, accepted the Halas Trophy moments after Grossman tossed the ball deep into the stands after the final kneel-down.

"This is why we play the game, to get to the Super Bowl and win," Urlacher said. "This overshadows everything."

It was a bitter, sloppy conclusion to the Saints' remarkable turnaround from a nomadic 3-13 season in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina's destruction to this winning season. As their city rebuilds, the team has provided an uplifting respite in the saga. This was the first trip this far into the playoffs for the 40-year-old franchise, previously best known as the Aints, whose fans wore paper bags on their heads because the team was so bad.

Down 16-0 and throttled for 28 minutes, the Saints awakened late in the first half on a 29-yard third-down completion to Marques Colston, who previously had several drops and several more slips. Brees threw a pair of sideline darts and Colston beat Charles Tillman for a 13-yard TD that temporarily changed the flow with 46 seconds remaining in the half.

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 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.

As Bush neared the end zone, he turned and pointed tauntingly at the hopelessly trailing Urlacher before somersaulting into the end zone.

That hot-dogging wasn't close to Brees' heave in the end zone. Under pressure but still in the pocket, he threw the ball away, causing a safety.

That erased any momentum for the Saints, and Chicago scored on Berrian's brilliant catch at the 2; he was not tackled down and stood up to cross the goal line.

A Chicago blitz stymied New Orleans' opening drive. After Devery Henderson outfought Tillman for a 40-yard pass to the Bears' 32, an all-out rush on third down led to a sack by Israel Idonije and a Saints punt into the end zone.

It set a first-half trend.

Another sack, by rookie Mark Anderson, Chicago's top pass rusher this season, was even more embarrassing to the Saints. Brees lost the ball and a Keystone Kops chase for it wound up in a 25-yard loss when rookie guard Jahri Evans recovered.

But Chicago's offense went nowhere.

So the defense got things started. Harris stripped the ball from Colston and Tillman returned it to the Saints' 36. After getting their initial first down on a 16-yard reverse by Rashied Davis, the Bears gambled on fourth-and-1 at the 4 and Benson converted.

But all they got was Gould's 19-yard field goal.

New Orleans remained charitable, and Adrian Peterson stripped kickoff returner Michael Lewis at the Saints' 30. New Orleans coach Sean Payton lost a video challenge, and Gould hit from 43.

The sloppy footing was an issue all through the game, particularly once the cold rain, followed by sleet and snow, began falling. Runners, receivers and returners kept slipping and areas of the turf were gashed by halftime.

Gould's 24-yarder made it 9-0 and Jones had his personal touchdown drive, with his 33-yard run the Bears' longest all season.

Jones capped the ground march with a 2-yard run for a 16-0 lead. He also scored from 15 yards in the fourth quarter.

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