January 21, 2007

Saints Turned Back in Chicago, 39-14: Offense all but stymied against Bears despite solid effort by Smith, defense

Far too many mistakes on offense buried the Saints and set up the just-barely-enough Bears offense with far too many short fields. The Saints defense, led by Pro Bowl DE Will Smith, hung with and at times dominated Bears QB Rex Grossman and their ground game. But Brees' mistakes were too much for a solid defensive effort by the defense to overcome, and the floodgates opened in the fourth quarter, with the game's outcome determined, when a defeated Saints team was run over.

QB Drew Brees was off-target all game long, as was his Bears counterpart Grossman. But Brees' mistakes resulted in turnovers instead of incompletions, while Grossman's prayer-powered passes somehow found their targets.

The Bears ended the Saints' first two drives with sacks that knocked them out of field goal possession, the second which resulted in a 25-yard loss on a fumble scramble. The Saints meanwhile forced a pair of three-and-outs to open the game. The Saints third drive ended when rookie WR Marques Colston, who struggled alongside the rest of the offense, fumbled the ball at midfield.

The Bears got their offense going after the fumble and moved to the New Orleans 13 yard line with a first down late in the first quarter. That brought on a remarkable defensive stand for the Saints defense, who held the Bears out of the end zone for seven plays before forcing a 19-yard field goal. The Saints forced two incompletions, one by Grossman who overthrew his tight end and another when LB Danny Clark deflected the pass, and stuffed Cedric Benson multiple times.

But when it came to mistakes, the Saints were just getting started. Michael Lewis was stripped of the ball on the way down to the ground on the ensuing kickoff return, and the defense was called back out onto the field. After dropping Benson for a three-yard loss on third down, they forced another field goal. This began a lousy trend, with the defense being called to bail the Saints out of bad situations. No defense, even this surprising Saints team, could save the day so many times.

The next Saints drive was killed by a questionable offensive pass interference call on Terrance Copper, the next when Brees was off-target on third and short. The Bears found another field goal between those two drives, when they got the ball at midfield and pushed it into field goal range with a 30-yard strike from Grossman to TE Desmond Clark, one of the few deep throws either quarterback made that was on target.
The Bears got on the board late in the second quarter by giving the ball to RB Thomas Jones, who covered 69 yards on eight consecutive carries, ending with a two-yard touchdown that made the score 16-0.
Then, shortly before halftime and with 1:50, the Saints offense showed signs of life. Brees missed his first two passes of the drive, then found Colston down the middle for a 29-yard gain. Colston, covered well by Bears LB Brian Urlacher, twisted back and made a fingertip catch behind Urlacher's back. That seemed to spark Brees, who then found Devery Henderson for 17 and Colston again for five. After an incompletion and a false start, Brees found Terrance Copper for a 13-yard first down on a fade to the sideline before hitting Colston up high in the end zone for the touchdown. The halftime score was 16-7 but the Saints defense was playing well and the visitors had the momentum, and the game seemed well within reach.
That wouldn't be more true at the start of the third quarter, when the defense forced a quick punt which put the Saints at their own 7 after a penalty on reserve Bryan Scott erased a fantastic 34-yard punt return by Michael Lewis.

Brees, standing in his end zone, found Copper for five yards before finding Reggie Bush down the left sideline on one of his favorite plays at USC. Copper, wide left, slanted hard inside as Bush ran out of the backfield behind the Bears coverage. Brees delivered a smooth floater that Bush ran under. Deep in the secondary, Bush juked out the only Bear in front of him and raced 88 yards across the field, showboating the final yards and performing a front flip over the goal line.

The score was 16-14 and the Saints appeared to poised to take the league on their next drive, which followed another Bears three-and-out. Brees got the ball at their 18 and efficiently moved the ball to the Bears 29 in typical Saints fashion, with short passes and even an 11-yard run by Saints fullback Mike Karney. But Brees was incomplete three times to kill the drive and set up the long field goal attempt. Billy Cundiff was given the chance for the 47-yard attempt instead of veteran John Carney. Cundiff's kick was low and away. Instead of a one point lead, the Saints were still down by two and the spirit began to deflate.
Another Bears three-and-out, their third of four punts in the third quarter alone, set the Saints up deep in their own territory again. At his own five and standing in his end zone for the pass, Brees made a very uncharacteristic mistake. With a pass rusher bearing down on him in the pocket, Brees dumped the ball to the right flat. Nobody was there, and the Saints were called for intentional grounding and a safety with 5:27 left in the third quarter. The score was 18-14 and wouldn't get any better for the Saints.

After two more punts, Rex Grossman found his groove. Or, the Bears found Fred Thomas on Bernard Berrian in single coverage. Thomas had played well at the beginning of the game, almost making a big play when he volleyballed Grossman's underthrown pass to safety Josh Bullocks, who dove for the interception. It was that caliber of play that the Bears seemed to make today, but the Saints were just short on.
Grossman hit Berrian for 13, Muhammad for 20, and Berrian again for 12 at the start of the fourth. Then, a second before Hollis Thomas smashed him to the turf, Grossman sent up a prayer to Berrian, who was racing with Thomas towards the end zone. The ball hung, Berrian went up and so did Thomas, but Berrian found the ball as he was falling behind the defender's outstretched arms at the goal line and rolled in. A fortunate stroke of luck for the Bears, and the catastrophic fourth quarter had started and the score was 25-14.

Two plays later, Brees was sacked by Bears DE Adewale Ogunleye, who raced inside of RT Jon Stinchcomb, and lost the ball at his own 30. Cedric Benson pushed the ball into the end zone five plays later, 32-14.

Two plays later, Brees unwisely sent a pass down the left sideline, and Bears CB Nathan Vasher outwrestled Billy Miller for the ball and the interception. Brees hadn't been intercepted on the road since Week 2 of the regular season.

The Bears punted and the Saints were in all-out desperation mode, and after being pinned deep by another fantastic Bears punt, turned the ball over on downs at their own 30. Thomas Jones was force-fed the ball, and scored with 4:28 left on a field-reversing scramble from 15 yards out to finish off scoring, 39-14.
So it was an unpleasant end to the best Saints season ever. The Saints' top offense found 354 yards passing, 132 by Reggie Bush including his brilliant 88-yard dash, the longest play in NFC Championship game history. Deuce McAllister, who carried only six times and was thrown to only four times for three completions, was out of Sean Payton's game plan. Bush found only 19 yards on the ground, 12 on one carry. The Saints found only 56 yards on the ground, one week after finding over 200 against the Eagles. WR Joe Horn was inactive again, with a mostly-healthy groin injury the grounds for Sean Payton to sit him.
Brees finished 27-49 for 354 yards, a pair of touchdowns, an interception, two costly fumbles (one recovered for a huge loss, one lost), and was sacked three times total. His accuracy was poor before and after snow began falling diagonally. He regularly forced Colston to fall backwards in his route to make an attempt for the pass, and he was clearly unnerved by the Bears pass rush. The wind chill was recorded at 13 degrees to start the game, and Brees as usual decided not to wear a passing glove.

DE Will Smith had a great game, consistently pressuring Grossman and stopping Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson multiple times in the back field for losses. Smith, the Saints' only Pro Bowler on defense, had six tackles and was credited for a quarterback hurry. Strongside linebacker Scott Fujita recorded 10 total tackles, while strong safety Jay Bellamy recorded nine. The Saints did not sack Grossman. DT Brian Young and weakside linebacker Scott Shanle each recorded six solo tackles, and Shanle made a skull-rattling smash of Benson early in the game that may have been a factor in Thomas Jones getting more involved in the game.

A fantastic season for the Saints, who finish 11-7, shouldn't be overshadowed by a loss in the conference championship game. The Saints whithered the Bears and were in the game down by only four points at the beginning of the fourth quarter. But the tough defense couldn't overcome all of the offense's mistakes and in the fourth the game crumbled around the Saints.

Chicago advances to Superbowl XLI in Miami. The Saints will have the 27th overall pick in the first round of the NFL Draft this April.

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