EDITOR: This article was originally published January 21, 2017, for the 10-year anniversary of the NFC championship game. With the Bears getting set to play the Saints in the playoffs this weekend, we are republishing this piece with a few updates, including more quotes from players.
For a second there it felt like we would never catch Reggie Bush. I mean ever. I mean, felt as if the Saints had cracked the seal and the offense that sportswriters couldn’t stop slobbering over was awake and forever running. Points would flow. Our defense would whither. We were 13-3 and we couldn’t win.
Few had picked us to. Adewale Ogunleye kept a list in his locker of media analysts who picked the Bears to lose. In Chicago, six of 16 writers in the Tribune and Sun-Times did too. The six writers who picked the Bears to lose were united in their reasoning: our defense — ranked 3rd in the NFL and 1st in takeaways — couldn’t hang with the high-scoring Saints attack.
“We were kind of pissed off,” Jason McKie told me in 2017. “I was pissed off. I know Olin was pissed off. The offensive line was pissed off. Thomas was pissed off. And the defense was really pissed off because all they kept talking about was Drew Brees and Reggie Bush and all the weapons they had and we’ve got the No. 1 defense in the league.”
Compounding that challenge, the sportswriters said, was Rex Grossman’s inability to, as Jay Mariotti of the Sun-Times put it, “survive a possible shootout.” Three other Sun-Times writers picked the Saints to win, each riffing on these themes. Brad Biggs wondered if the Bears would get the “stout defensive effort” and “solid play from Rex” needed to beat the Saints. Carol Slezak said the D was vulnerable and inconsistent without the injured Tommie Harris. Greg Couch’s assessment cut deepest: with a snowfall expected, the “small and quick” Bears defense was not “suited for Bear Weather.”
That one stung. And the Tribune writers weren’t much nicer. Melissa Isaacson praised New Orleans as “the best offense the Bears have faced” while Mike Downey noted his “dread” for Brees-to-Bush passes which would “drive Peanut Tillman nuts.”
“Not one person picked the Bears to win,” Ogunleye said after the game. He was referring to the predictions on whatever sheet of paper he was carrying, but the statement applied to the Chicago papers too. “Everybody said the reason why is the Saints offense. That kind of [ticked] us off a little bit, because we knew we had the No. 1 defense in the league, and we’re getting no credit.”
The “we get no respect” mantra may seem like boiler plate to fans or media, but when you’re perceiving that treatment as a player, the feeling is real as it gets. When the Bears ran out of the Soldier Field tunnel for the NFC championship game, the expectations were stacked oddly against them. Their 14-3 record was apparently insufficient proof of their superiority against the 11-6 Saints. They were only 3-point favorites at kickoff.
They were also the less compelling national story, since the Saints were the ultimate feel-good success, winning 10 games after a 3-13 2005 and doing so in the first season back in New Orleans after a year at LSU due to Hurricane Katrina.
“All week we kept hearing about the New Orleans Saints and the hurricane they went through and how they were America’s team because they had to go through so much adversity,” McKie said. “And we were like, ‘We understand that and respect that,’ but everybody’s talking about them and we’re like, ‘We’re the best team in the NFC. They have to come here to Soldier Field.’”
The key to the Saints’ turnaround was the new coach — Bears alumnus Sean Payton — and new quarterback, Drew Brees. The final four quarterback quartet was the 2006 1st team All-Pro Brees, two-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning, three-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady, and Rex Grossman, he of the 73.9 quarterback rating and 25 starts in four professional seasons.
So no, national folks were neither predicting nor rooting for a Bears victory.
That’s what made the Bush touchdown a nervous moment. We’d started the game with three Robbie Gould field goals, forcing the Saints into four punts and two fumbles. After punt number four, Thomas Jones cracked off a magnificent drive: eight carries (every play of the drive) for 69 yards, including a 33-yarder on 2nd and 8 and a two-yard run to convert the drive’s only 3rd down.
After Jones’ two-yard touchdown, though, the Saints figured us out. Brees converted a pair of 3rd and 10’s on pass plays, and then connected with Marques Colton for a 13-yard touchdown with less than a minute remaining in the half. The Bears received the football in the second half leading 16-7, punted, and two plays later Brees floated a beauty to Bush down the left sideline.
He caught the pass at the 26 ahead of Tillman, Chris Harris, and Lance Briggs, cut toward the middle of the field in front of a staggering Danieal Manning, and outran a gang of Bears to the endzone including a hard-charging Brian Urlacher.
His final 15 yards are, to this day, burned in the collective memory of Bears fans.
As he pulled away from the pack, Bush turned to look over his left shoulder, spotted the trailing Bears brigade in pursuit, and wagged his finger at them, or perhaps at Urlacher, who was a full 10 yards behind Bush when Bush made his cutback and finished about three steps from him and three steps ahead of his teammates.
Then Bush did a full front flip into the endzone.
Then Bush danced in the endzone.
Then Bears fans lost their minds.
Then the Bears said: enough.
“You’re a rookie in this league, and you had a good play,” Ogunleye said about Bush. “But to turn around and taunt Brian — taunt basically the whole team — was a slap in the face.”
Whatever it takes though, right? Because the Bush touchdown caused the Bears to strike back, closing out the Saints with a 23-0 run to advance to the franchise’s first Super Bowl in 21 years.
The Saints actually had a good shot at taking a lead, but missed a 47-yard field goal the drive after the Bush touchdown. That was as close as they would get. On the next drive, pinned at the 5, the allegedly undermanned, undersized, underskilled Bears defense forced Brees into intentional grounding in his own endzone. Safety. 18-14, good guys.
Two Bears drives later, Rex Grossman and Bernard Berrian connected on the instantly iconic slow down-dive-catch-flip-stand-run-celebrate touchdown. 25-14 Bears.
Two plays later, Ogunleye sacked Brees, drove him to the ground, landed on him, and came up with the football. It was snowing now — Bears Weather, as it were — and that was fine with us.
“It kind of became a snowball effect,” Ogunleye said after the game about the fumble. “It really dug them a hole, and they weren’t able to climb out of it.”
Five plays later, Cedric Benson banged home a 12-yard touchdown run. 32-14 Bears, and we could smell it now, taste it now, see ourselves in South Beach for Super Bowl XLI.
“That was an exciting moment,” Benson told me in 2016. “I wanted to do really good in the game. Yet at the time I didn’t realize the full spectrum of it. Some guys never make it to the Super Bowl. So yeah, I was really excited.”
Two plays after Benson’s touchdown, Nathan Vasher intercepted Brees, the fourth Bears takeaway against zero turnovers. The next Saints drive ended on a failed fourth down conversion. Four plays later, Thomas Jones gained four yards to reach 108, passing Walter Payton for the most rushing yards in a playoff game by a Bear. The next play he ran for a 15-yard TD, ending his day at 123 yards.
Bears 39, Saints 14, and a final fourth down stop plus a few more powerful Benson runs put the ball in Rex’s hands for a quarterback’s favorite play: the kneel down.
At this point the snow was heavy, reminding Bears fans everywhere of the magical NFC championship game victory 21 years earlier over the Rams, also at Soldier Field, also in the falling snow, also an ass-kicking. We saw visions of Wilber Marshall and the Fridge and looked back at the guys on this field and said, “We are with you. Let’s make a memory.”
For most Bears fans, I would guess that the Berrian catch is their favorite moment of this game, since it is spectacular on its own terms, game-changing in its position in the game, and spiritually the closest that game got to Wilber Marshall’s fumble return. It’s a great play, no doubt. But it’s not my favorite moment.
No, my moment of that game came after the game was finished. Grossman rose from his kneel down, reared back, and heaved the football into the stands.
This was a moment of both defiance and celebration. Grossman was named the NFC’s Offensive Player of the Month in September and was an early MVP candidate. Through five games, he had 10 touchdowns, three interceptions, and a 100.8 quarterback rating.
Then, after an early debut, the “Bad Rex” games started rolling in: six turnovers and a 10.2 rating in the legendary Cardinals comeback, three picks against Miami in the team’s first loss, three more with no touchdowns in a loss to New England, and a 1.3 rating against Minnesota that was the closest he’d come all year to losing his job.
Grossman was seen from the outside as the team’s weak link. Maybe he was. But among teammates he was a fearless, fiery leader who never lost his confidence or his team’s respect.
Prior to the game, he and Jones talked about “what it would be like if we won, how cool that would be,” Jones said. Together, Jones, Grossman, Urlacher — everyone created a moment bigger than any one man. In the AFC, the story was “Peyton Manning finally gets to the Super Bowl.” In the NFC, it was “Bears somehow defeat Brees and weapons.” Rex was at the center of that national reluctance.
And that to me was the beauty of Grossman’s ball heave. It was a moment that said everything we presumed Rex wanted to say: “I don’t need to save this ball because I’m going to get a better one in two weeks” plus “This one’s for you, Chicago” plus “I’M THE QUARTERBACK AND LOOK HOW FAR I CAN THROW. UNLEASH THE F****** DRAGON.”
“Going into that game we had a chip on our shoulder,” McKie said. “We had just come off a close game with Seattle which we had barely won, so we wanted to make a statement to show them that we are the best team and we are going to the Super Bowl and we are going to win the Super Bowl. We came out and wanted to establish our physical presence. Our physical dominance. We wanted to come out there and hit them in the mouth and that’s what we did — we knocked them out. And there was no question about who the best team in the NFC was after that game.”
After the game, Rex told reporters that the team had “one more win before we can call ourselves ‘World Champions.’” I loved that moment. It said to me, “All this crap I’ve been through? All this crap WE’VE been through? No one will remember it. The only thing they will remember is what we do in the Super Bowl.”
On this day, the Bears won big. The 25-point victory was the biggest for any team in the playoffs that season. Up on the podium, Virginia McCaskey famously cheered and clapped and laughed while accepting the George Halas Trophy, named for her father.
Urlacher also celebrated with it on the podium, an image used prominently by both papers the next day. His statement echoed Grossman’s: “This overshadows everything,” he said, adding about Grossman: “I don’t know what his career record is. I don’t care what his stats are. He’s a winner.”
On the field, the players were ecstatic. Jones recalls seeing a choked up Desmond Clark exclaiming, “We did it. We did it,” while Jones himself wondered, “Is this really happening?” Benson, Rashied Davis, and Jason McKie posed for a photo, their faces pure ebullience.
Benson has barely any happy memories from his Bears tenure, but he described going to the Super Bowl as “really exciting,” while a giddy Tillman convened with his wife for some family planning.
“When the clock hit zero, the snow was coming down on the field,” Tillman told me in 2016. “My wife made her way down, and I remember the first thing I yelled at her was, ‘We’re gonna have another baby!’ I made a bet with her that if we went to the Super Bowl we would have three kids. At the time we only had one child. We probably planned on having two, and she said, ‘If you go to the Super Bowl, we’ll have three.’ And that was the first thing I said to her. It was perfect.”
“The emotions were running crazy,” Berrian said after the game. “It has been our dream to be in the Super Bowl. Now we have to go down there and win it.”
Through it all, the snow kept falling. The fans kept cheering. The players kept grinning. The city kept celebrating. The Halas Trophy was home. The Super Bowl was back. For one more night, our Bears were champions.
Jack M Silverstein is Chicago’s sports historian, Bears historian at Windy City Gridiron, and author of the forthcoming “6 Rings: The Bulls, The City, and the Dynasty that Changed the Game.” His newsletter, “A Shot on Ehlo,” brings readers inside the making of the book, with original interviews, research and essays. Sign up now, and say hey at @readjack.