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Bears back in championship form

The snow was falling and the temperature was plummeting, but none of the Chicago Bears fans wanted to leave Soldier Field. They have waited 21 years for this -- 21 long, often frustrating years -- and they were going to enjoy every minute of this celebration.

There is joy in the Windy City again. More than two decades after their last appearance, the Bears are going back to the Super Bowl.

The Bears punched their ticket to Miami with an impressive 39-14 victory over the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday before a spirited crowd of 61,047.

Chicago moves on to face the AFC champion Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLI on Feb. 4 at Dolphins Stadium for a chance to try to duplicate what the still-beloved 1985 Bears championship team accomplished.

"To be honest, I can't tell you what I'm feeling," said left guard Ruben Brown, who played the first nine of his 12 NFL seasons with the Buffalo Bills. "I teared up out there on the field because I just knew it has been 12 years of work. Not just because of the 12 years, but because of all the work we have put in here in Chicago. It's a great group of guys who worked hard and now we're here."

Getting there has been the Bears' focus since the start of training camp. And despite so much of the nation rooting for the Cinderella Saints, the Bears kept their eyes on the prize.

"We knew what the experts were saying all week long, so it's exciting for us," All-Pro middle linebacker Brian Urlacher said. "It doesn't matter what anyone says. We knew what we had to do to win and we went out and did it."

Indeed, this win was special for the Bears. It also was historic as Lovie Smith, as well as his Super Bowl counterpart Tony Dungy, became the first African-American coaches to lead teams to the title game.

As much as that means to Smith, he was able to do something just as meaningful after the game.

Last week he said his dream was to present the George Halas Trophy to Halas' daughter, Virginia McCaskey. On the podium at midfield, Smith was able to realize that dream.

"We didn't have to say a lot," Smith said. "I could see it in her face how excited she was. The team told her that they would bring it to her. She's happy right now, but the next game she'll be even happier."

This was a game of dramatic momentum shifts. Chicago scored the first 16 points before the Saints rallied with 14 straight, a surge that was highlighted by an electrifying 88-yard catch and run for a touchdown by rookie running back Reggie Bush.

But three plays ultimately turned the game in the Bears' favor.

The first was New Orleans place-kicker Billy Cundiff coming up short on a 47-yard field goal attempt that would have given the Saints the lead midway through the third quarter. After a 51-yard punt by Brad Maynard pinned the Saints at their 5-yard line, quarterback Drew Brees was pressured into throwing the ball away in the end zone. He was called for intentional grounding, which resulted in a safety.

But the real back-breaker for the Saints came 37 seconds into the fourth quarter when Bears quarterback Rex Grossman completed a 33-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Bernard Berrian, who outjumped cornerback Fred Thomas at the goal line and then rolled on his back into the end zone before being touched.

The Bears scored 21 points in all during the final quarter, turning a close game into a rout.

Grossman was just 11 of 26 for 144 yards in the game, but completed all four passes for 78 yards on the scoring drive. It didn't matter that he wasn't on top of his game because the running game was so dominant. Thomas Jones ran for 123 yards on 19 carries and scored two touchdowns, while his backup, Cedric Benson, pounded out 60 yards and a touchdown on 24 attempts.

Meanwhile the Bears' defense made big plays, forcing four turnovers (the kick coverage team got another takeaway), and sacking Brees three times.

"This is the blueprint of the Chicago Bears," Grossman said. "Great defense, run the ball well and then today we made a few plays in the passing game that set us apart at the end. This is typical Chicago Bears football."

The biggest mystery of the day was the Saints' running game going AWOL. The Bears expected the Saints to make running back Deuce McAllister the focal point of the offense. But McAllister, who gained 143 yards in last week's playoff win, was held to 18 yards on just six carries.

Overall, the Saints ran only 12 times for 56 yards.

"Credit Chicago," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "They came in with a lot of eight-man fronts. Any time you get into a game like that where you are struggling on early downs, obviously it's difficult. They did a great job tonight."

Turnovers allowed the Bears to take control early. Strong safety Chris Harris stripped the ball from rookie receiver Marques Colston after a short completion and cornerback Nathan Vasher recovered the fumble and returned it to the Saints' 36-yard line. Adrian Peterson knocked the ball away from Saints kickoff return man Michael Lewis and recovered at the New Orleans 30.

But the Bears had to settle for two field goals by Robbie Gould, who added another three-pointer when a third successive drive stalled.

The Bears finally put a touchdown on the board behind the legs of Jones, who ran the ball eight straight times for 69 yards, including a 2-yard score to give Chicago a 16-0 lead.

The Saints' offense showed signs of life with a late first-half drive that concluded with a 13-yard Brees touchdown pass to Colston.

New Orleans continued to roll the first time it had the ball in the second half. From the Saints' 7, Bush circled out of the backfield, caught a short pass from Brees and made an ankle-breaking juke move on free safety Danieal Manning at the 45. Bush then cut across the field and outraced the defense, finishing the play with a somersault in the end zone.

Bush's 88-yard sprint was the longest play in an NFC Championship Game and the third-longest in the postseason during the Super Bowl era.

But the Saints did very little after that as the Bears scored the last 23 points to put the game away.

"We felt pretty good coming in at halftime, having scored at the end of the half, and then obviously getting the big play to make it 16-14 and then even driving down and having a chance to kick a field goal to go up," said Brees, who completed 27 of 49 passes for 354 yards. "But that's a good defense we just played."

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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