Long time coming


Published: Sunday, January 21, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 21, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

CHICAGO — Two decades and forever. That's the time span between trips to the Super Bowl for the Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints.

While various players from each side have been to the NFL's biggest game with other teams, these are two organizations mired in, well, Super droughts. The last time the Bears played for the league title, it was in January 1986, and the stars were named Payton, Singletary, Hampton and McMahon. The defense was overwhelming and Da Coach, Mike Ditka, was overbearing.

That 21-year hiatus is distressing in Chicago, but it's also 19 years shorter than the span New Orleans has gone without a Super Bowl trip. Those four decades make up merely all of the Saints' existence.

Because today's NFC championship game involves franchises that haven't enjoyed much success in the Super Bowl era, the celebrations might be just a bit more exuberant.

"Growing up watching the NFL, being such a fan of the sport and the league," Bears quarterback Rex Grossman said, "it means a great deal to be in this position. I really respect where we are at right now as far as the history of the league. I'm approaching it with a ton of intensity and focus, but not trying to make it bigger than it is. It's still just a football game we are playing at Soldier Field against the Saints."

Sure it is. But it's also the biggest game of the careers of every Bears player except five with previous Super Bowl game experience: wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad; defensive backs Ricky Manning Jr., and Dante Wesley; tackle Fred Miller; and punter Brad Maynard. Backup quarterback Brian Griese was with Denver in 1999, but didn't get on the field.

"I think experience teaches you a lot, so if you have been in that situation ... we have a few, we don't have many," said coach Lovie Smith, the defensive coordinator for the 2001 Rams that lost to New England for the NFL title. "But yes, it has to have helped, especially if you've been there recently.

"But once you get down to it, gametime we're going to kick it off and now it's just another football game. You know the week leading up to it is quite a bit different. But beyond that I don't see much."

Beyond the second round of the playoffs is farther than the Saints ever have traveled. They've made this uplifting journey in the wake of a nomadic season where they played home games in three cities after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. They went 3-13 during 2005, and Sean Payton was hired as coach.

Payton's work this season, when the Saints went 10-6 and won the NFC South, earned him AP Coach of the Year honors. He and his players, from All-Pro quarterback Drew Brees to rookie stars Reggie Bush and Marques Colston to longtime Saints Joe Horn and John Carney, have been vital forces in the revival of their city's spirit.

So imagine what a Super Bowl berth would do for the folks back home.

"I say this all along, and I have throughout the course of the season," said linebacker Scott Fujita, in his first year with the Saints: "I have never been on a team where I really felt like the community and the team were in it together. And that's not just lip service, that's the truth.

"They'll react the way they always do, and then some. The last playoff victory over Philadelphia, it's just been a great city to be a part of. That atmosphere is contagious and the players feed off of it. The coaches are encouraged by it."

The Saints also get enlightenment from defensive tackles Hollis Thomas and Brian Young; linebacker Mark Simoneau; kicker Carney; safety Omar Stoutmire; and running back Aaron Stecker, all with Super Bowl appearances. Fullback Fred McAfee, now on injured reserve, and backup quarterback Jamie Martin also were on Super Bowl teams. Martin didn't play in the 2002 game as backup to the Rams' Kurt Warner.

"This is what we work for year-round, starting back in January and February, preparing the staff, preparing the roster, offseason workouts, minicamp, training camp," said Carney, who played for the Chargers in the 1995 rout at the hands of the 49ers. "The ultimate goal is to win the championship. ... To play in a Super Bowl, and to win it, would be special for a lot of reasons and for a lot of people in this area.

"It leaves a bitter taste in your mouth when you walk away from the Super Bowl and you don't bring home a championship. It makes you want to get back there and win it."

While the current Bears, who won the NFC North with the conference's best record, pay homage to the '85 Bears, they know they aren't held with the same high regard as that bunch. So getting back to a Super Bowl and winning it would provide a bit extra self-satisfaction for them.

"We're 13-3 and then we're hearing stuff as if we're 8-8," said defensive end Alex Brown (University of Florida). "It's just how little respect we are getting.

"But that don't matter, though it doesn't bother me a bit. Even when we were winning six or seven in a row, people were saying stuff."

While the Bears play the no-respect angle, the Saints wonder if America has recognized they are more than a team of destiny.

"We have been riding an emotional wave this whole year," Fujita said. "But you can't discredit this is a damn good team that I'm playing on, too. From the very beginning ... the emotions, guys were excited about that, and the community and the rest of the country kind of looked at it that way. But the more games you watched and the effort you see the players are putting out there, and also the talent level, you see it's a lot more than just an emotional story. This is a legitimate contender."

It only took forever.

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