CHICAGO – Fantasy and reality merged into one on a blissful and snowy Sunday afternoon at Soldier Field as the Bears advanced to the Super Bowl for the first time in 21 years with a pulsating 39-14 victory over the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship Game.
The Bears nearly blew a 16-0 lead as the Saints rallied to within 16-14 early in the second half, but Chicago responded with a safety and two touchdowns to create some breathing room.
Heading back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1985, the Bears will face the winner of this afternoon’s AFC Championship Game between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts.
On the game’s opening possession, Saints receiver Devery Henderson wrestled Drew Brees’ long pass away from Charles Tillman for a 40-yard reception to the Chicago 32. But Israel Idonije sacked Brees on third-and-eight, pushing New Orleans out of field goal range.
On New Orleans’ second drive, Mark Anderson sacked Brees on third-and-four, forcing a fumble that guard Jahri Evans recovered at the Saints’ 34 for a loss of 25 yards. Adewale Ogunleye had an opportunity to recover the loose ball, but he was unable to scoop it up.
The defense then delivered its third huge play on as many possessions as Chris Harris stripped the ball from receiver Marques Colston after a 12-yard reception. Nathan Vasher returned the fumble 14 yards to the New Orleans 36.
Robbie Gould’s 19-yard field goal gave the Bears a 3-0 lead with :41 left in the first quarter, but not before the Chicago offense failed to get into the end zone on five plays inside the 5-yard line.
After Cedric Benson’s 1-yard run on fourth-and-one resulted in a first-and-goal at the 3, Grossman threw wide and high to Desmond Clark in the back of the end zone. Grossman didn’t see fellow tight end John Gilmore uncovered in the left corner of the end zone.
After Benson’s 2-yard run on second down, Grossman’s pass intended for Jason McKie was deflected by linebacker Danny Clark.
Adrian Peterson forced Michael Lewis to fumble the ensuing kickoff and Danieal Manning recovered at the New Orleans 30. New Orleans challenged the call, but the ruling was upheld after a replay review.
Once again, the Bears converted the turnover as Gould’s 43-yard field goal extended Chicago’s lead to 6-0 with 13:40 left in the second quarter.
After the Saints went three-and-out, Grossman’s 30-yard pass down the seam to Clark resulted in a first down at the New Orleans 19. But the Bears again settled for a field goal as Gould connected from 24 yards to widen the margin to 9-0 with 8:52 left in the half.
Jones took over on Chicago’s next possession, rushing for 69 yards while carrying on all eight snaps capped by a 2-yard TD run, making it 16-0 with 1:56 remaining.
The Saints responded with an eight-play, 73-yard drive culminating in Brees’ 12-yard TD pass to Colston, cutting the deficit to 16-7 with :46 left in the half.
New Orleans stormed back as Bush burned the Bears with an 88-yard TD reception, drawing the Saints to within 16-14 with 12:20 left in the third quarter. Bush blew past Chris Harris in catching a swing pass in the left flat, cut back to beat Danieal Manning and raced to the end zone. It was the longest play in an NFC Championship Game.
Looking to take the lead, Billy Cundiff’s 47-yard field goal attempt was short with 6:57 left in the third quarter.
After Brad Maynard’s 51-yard punt bounded out of bounds at the 5-yard line, Brees was penalized for intentional grounding while in the end zone, resulting in a safety that increased the Bears’ lead to 18-14. Briggs and Anderson applied the pressure on the play.
The Bears widened the margin to 25-14 on Grossman’s 33-yard TD pass to Berrian, who tumbled backwards after shaking cornerback Fred Thomas on the play.
Two plays later, Adewale Ogunleye sacked Brees, ripping the ball out of the quarterback’s hands. The ball was initially awarded to the Saints, but the Bears challenged the call and it was reversed, giving them the ball at the 26.
Four plays later, Benson bolted up the middle for a 12-yard TD run, extending the Bears lead to 32-14 with 11:37 left.
Nathan Vasher then generated the Bears’ fourth takeaway with an interception of Brees. Jones clinched the victory with a 15-yard TD run, widening the margin to 39-14 with 4:19 left in the game.
Roster notes: Wide receiver Mark Bradley sat out Sunday’s game with an ankle injury. Other Bears inactives were safeties Tyler Everett and Nick Turnbull, fullback J.D. Runnels, linebacker Leon Joe, center/guard Anthony Oakley and defensive tackle Antonio Garay.
For the Saints, wide receiver Joe Horn (groin) and safety Omar Stoutmire (hip) missed Sunday’s game with injuries. Other New Orleans inactives were running back Jamaal Branch, cornerback Curtis Deloatch, linebacker Alfred Fincher, guard Montrae Holland, defensive tackle Rodney Leisle and tackle Rob Petitti.