NFC Championship Preview: New Orleans Saints vs. Chicago Bears
By Chris Pokorny, PFCritics WriterJanuary 19, 2007
This Sunday, a trip to the Super Bowl is on the line when the New Orleans Saints try to take down the Chicago Bears. Both teams are coming off of hard-fought 27-24 victories last week, doing what the first and second seeds in the AFC couldn't do. The Saints have almost had a storybook type of season under head coach Sean Payton. The offense has been turned around completely after the additions of Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, and Marques Colston. Meanwhile, the Bears have had their share of problems involving Rex Grossman. However, when it came down to it, more times than not the Bears were able to utilize the other units on their team to pull out a victory, a big reason they were the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Something has to give this Sunday in what is bound to be a game decided at the very end.
Drew Brees: 20 of 32 for 243 yards, 1 touchdown, 3 sacks, 1 fumble.
Note: Although it wasn't the typical "four touchdown performance" by Drew Brees against the Philadelphia Eagles last week, he did everything he needed to do to get the Saints to the next level. The Saints should not hold anything back for Brees in this game just because he's facing the Bears. Matt Hasselbeck, who had struggled most of this season due to injury, was nearly on top of his game against the Bears defense, finding all of the holes in the secondary near the sidelines.
Rex Grossman: 21 of 38 for 282 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception, 3 sacks, 1 fumble.
Note: Bears fans have to be breathing a sigh of relief after the above average performance by Rex Grossman against the Seattle Seahawks last week. There will still be criticism towards Grossman though, and rightly so. One game against a depleted Seahawks' secondary doesn't erase the unbelievably awful couple of weeks he suffered in the second half of the season. What was positive in my mind was the fact that he came through in the first round of the playoffs when he needed to, especially on the deep ball to Bernard Berrian early on.
Note: One word can sum up the Saints' backfield situation: luxurious. Although the Saints have utilized their duo exceptionally well this season, there have been cases in which I've felt that McAllister should get a little more action. The Saints kept giving him the ball against the Eagles, and McAllister kept pounding through the heart of the line with ease. He even caught several passes out of the backfield, another element of his game I was happy to see the Saints utilize. And, when needed, Reggie Bush came in and provided the necessary change of pace around the edge to make the system complete.
Note: Before the Bears' playoff game last week, there was one thing I cited in particular about the team's running game: I felt it was critical that Cedric Benson be involved in the gameplan throughout the game. Intentional or not, the Bears followed my advice and gave Benson a few more touches than even I had expected. Jones' rushing average was a little low, but he punched it in twice near the goal line, which is what really matters in the end. The Saints have a vulnerable run defense, but this is a game where Jones should be the guy to receive a few more carries than he did last week.
Note: The production from the Saints' receivers was very limited, considering the team's receivers had made themselves known this year for coming out of no where to make some big plays. One of the more surprising things for this group involved the fact that their tight ends had quite a bit of success, including Billy Miller, Mark Campbell, and John Owens. Veteran receiver Joe Horn will be a game-time decision yet again this week, but it looks as if his best chance of playing would be in the Super Bowl. Against the Bears, the Saints will have to count on either Copper or Henderson to have more than just one catch to go along with the usually consistent Marques Colston.
Note: With how much Grossman had been down the stretch this season, he couldn't afford a lack of production from his receivers when given the opportunity. Fortunately for Grossman, his guys came through. Bernard Berrian, who was known early in the season for recording long touchdown passes down the field, caught a 68-yard touchdown in the early part of the second quarter last week. Meanwhile, Rashied Davis made a few big plays early before dropping a key pass later in the game. Davis rebounded later on though, making the biggest catch of all in overtime to see the Bears up for Robbie Gould's game-winning field goal.
Stats: 24 points allowed, 1 sack.
Note: When you take a look at the Saints' defensive statistics from last week, one thing in particular stands out: zero turnovers. Unfortunately for the Saints, although they show some fire defensively, they fail to come up with a game-changing play in that manner. What they can do, though, is come up with a stop to bail their offense out, enough so that they don't let a game get out of reach. After Reggie Bush botched the pitch play late in the game last week, the Saints' defense didn't allow Jeff Garcia to move the ball down the field: they forced a punt and allowed the offense to seal the game.
Note: The Bears have lost their "complete domination" label after giving up around 20+ points on a weekly basis, but unlike the Saints, they have more individual playmakers than the Saints do. Heck, Brian Urlacher himself can set an immediate tempo and wreck havoc for an opposing team. Something the Bears defense should be worried about though is the way Shaun Alexander was able to move the chains consistently last week. Deuce McAllister has the same type of build, and with the added versatility provided by Reggie Bush, the Bears hope that they won't be caught off guard.
Michael Lewis: 27.4 yards per kick return. Reggie Bush: 7.0 yards per punt return.
John Carney: 2-of-2 in field goals, with a long of 33 yards.
Note: Michael Lewis has been rather explosive in the return game, but we're still waiting for another big return that counts by Reggie Bush. More importantly though, the Saints have still been able to count on Carney in the kicking game.
Devin Hester: 17.7 yards per kick return. 1.7 yards per punt return. Robbie Gould: 2-of-2 in field goals, with a long of 49 yards.
Note: In regards to Devin Hester, there should be some concern that he has gotten to the point where he is "trying" to do too much. He dropped the ball several times on his returns last week, and one of those should have resulted in a costly turnover. The Bears had to be relieved that Robbie Gould came through in the clutch not once, but twice. He kicked a 41-yarder late in the fourth quarter to tie it, before kicking a 49-yarder in overtime.
New Orleans Saints
Last week, Matt Hasselbeck was able to distribute the football around evenly to his entire supporting cast of receivers. The Bears haven't been able to recover in the secondary since the loss of safety Tommie Harris, and that's great news for quarterback Drew Brees. Although Brees was able to afford not really finding a secondary target in the passing game last week besides Marques Colston, he'll have to make sure he establishes another threat early on against the Bears. Devery Henderson is more capable of catching the deep ball, while Terrence Copper can make some plays ten+ yards down the field. Of course, both players have their drawbacks as well, which is why they work more effectively when a guy like Joe Horn is in the lineup.
Although I'm calling for the Saints to try and find some more success in their passing game, the team's running game should still maintain a 50-50 balance in terms of the gameplan. Shaun Alexander was able to pound the ball right up the middle of the Bears defense last week, particularly on some surprising third down calls. Deuce McAllister almost duplicated that style against the Eagles, and can wear Chicago's defense down in a similar fashion. Reggie Bush must be careful when he's in the game though, because the Bears will be looking to turn one of his "crazy-like plays" into a turnover.
Although most of it came on a 62-yard touchdown run, the Saints' defense was torched for 116 yards on just 13 carries by Brian Westbrook last week. With that type of success, it makes you wonder why the Eagles didn't try to use their running game a little more often in the fourth quarter of the game. Stopping the run will be the biggest priority for the Saints in this game, because although Rex Grossman had success last week, almost any defense has to be licking their chops still when he has the football in his hand, dropping back to pass.
Much like many people don't have faith in Peyton Manning's ability to succeed in the postseason (for the record, I'm not one of them), I still am not sold on Rex Grossman. I was pleased with his performance last week, and he did exactly what I expected him to do against the Seahawks' defense. If you go back and read what I expected from the Bears offense last week in my column, you'll find that basically all of it came true. This week, I think the Bears are going to fall into a troubled situation in the sense that Grossman will perform well in the first half, only to start to fall apart after halftime. By then, it could be too late for the Bears.
Against a team like the Seahawks, who didn't take the lead in the game until later in the second half, the Bears were willing to give the ball to Cedric Benson to spell Thomas Jones. Unfortunately, if the Saints get out to a quick start and have the lead throughout most of the first half, I think the Bears will be too tempted to stick with their starter, basically rendering Benson's role in the game meaningless. If the Bears do establish a lead later in the game, they'll still probably stay away from Benson in an attempt to "stick with the veteran".
I said it last week, and although it wasn't 100% true, I'll say it this week again: if the Bears win this game, it'll be based on what they do defensively. Few teams have actually been able to stop Drew Brees and the Saints offense this season, and one of those teams was the Baltimore Ravens. I may have given the Bears' defense the same respect earlier this season, but they haven't been lights out in the long run. Ultimately, that will cost them their chance at bailing out Rex Grossman if the situation arises.
NFC Conference Championship Prediction
Winner - New Orleans Saints
For the record: to those of you who believe that the thought of the Saints making the Super Bowl means that the NFL is fixed, give me a break. No offense to people who believe that games are "fixed", but that's nothing but a scapegoat excuse for what has been a well-coached team. Sean Payton has put together the dream one-season-turnaround team, and if he defeats the Bears, he'll be one step closer to completing the miracle. The Bears have come under scrutiny that some people feel they don't "deserve" to be here. Win or lose this game, the Bears have had a good season and definitely deserve to be in the NFC Championship. Unfortunately, I don't see the Bears' inconsistent offense and somewhat weary defense overcoming the Saints' creativeness. Final Score: Saints 28, Bears 21.