Coming into this season, the Bears had not won a playoff game since defeating Minnesota at the Metrodome 35-18 on Jan. 1, 1995. On top of that, the franchise had lost three consecutive postseason home games – dating back to a Dec. 29, 1991 defeat at the hands of the Cowboys – and still had the stink of last year's playoff failure against Carolina on them. There were 6,659 no-shows at Soldier Field for last Sunday's divisional matchup against Seattle, and their absence had nothing to do with the near-freezing temperatures along the lakefront. Chicago fans seem to be waiting for the other shoe to drop with this team since midseason, and some of them have had their hearts broken too many times in the past. While the 1985 Bears captivated the city with an aura of invincibility en route to a Super Bowl title, the 2006 version appears irreparably flawed.
Last Sunday's win over the Seahawks may have been a nail-biter, but now veteran All-Pros like Olin Kreutz and Brian Urlacher will never again have to wonder if they will experience success in the postseason.
4. Rex Grossman proved that he can get the job done when he's needed
Even though this is just his first full season as the starter at QB, Grossman is already one of the most heavily scrutinized athletes in Chicago sports history. His 3,193 passing yards and 23 touchdowns were the best regular season totals since Erik Kramer's record-setting 1995 campaign, yet all the experts wanted to talk about was his 25 turnovers and questionable decision-making. To a man in the Bears locker room, there has never been a quarterback controversy because Grossman has always had the full confidence of his teammates. He completed 21 of 38 passes for 282 yards with one touchdown and one interception against Seattle, and that INT wasn't his fault considering it bounced right off the hands of receiver Muhsin Muhammad. More importantly, he made some huge throws when his team needed them and put Robbie Gould in position to kick the game-winning field goal in overtime with a picture-perfect 30-yard completion to Rashied Davis on 3rd-and-10.
Grossman noticeably had a chip on his shoulder when speaking to reporters during his usual Wednesday press conference at Halas Hall and appears to have rediscovered the moxie he displayed in college.
New Orleans had the 11th-ranked defense in the NFL this season at 307.3 yards allowed per game, but they have largely been getting it done with smoke and mirrors. The Saints may be No. 3 defending the pass this season, but that has less to do with the play of their secondary and more to do with the fact that they have struggled to stop the ground game. They are 23rd against the run this season and surrendered an astonishing 4.9 yards per carry. Linebacker Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle have played pretty well this year and are the top two tacklers on the team, but the defensive front is undersized and could be completely overmatched by Chicago's veteran offensive line. Jones had another wonderful season with 1,210 yards rushing as the starter, and Benson looked and better and better with each passing week while racking up 647 yards in spot duty.
Offensive coordinator Ron Turner has done a good job alternating Jones and Benson as he sees fit, and part of their success can be attributed to the fact that neither one of them has been overworked.
2. Reggie Bush will have many of his skills neutralized in the elements
Although the forecast in Chicago calls for fairly calm conditions with a high around 30 degrees and possible snowfall on Sunday, neither team will have a decided advantage strictly because of the weather. That being said, rookie sensation Reggie Bush may be the one player who struggles the most because of the things he does well. Deuce McAllister is a no-nonsense running back that hits the hole as hard as anyone, but Bush needs to use his world-class speed and ankle-breaking elusiveness in order to be successful. Assuming the Soldier Field turf is fairly hard and somewhat slick, his cutback ability will be neutered to some degree and he will not be able to turn the corner as fast as he usually does. Sean Payton will get the ball in Bush's hands any way he can just like he has all season, but those sweeps and reverses that need time to develop and space to operate may not be as effective as they would be at the Superdome.
On top of that, linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are lightning fast themselves and have a history of destroying opponents whose games are predicated on darting East and West.
1. New Orleans can't cover anyone in the secondary right now
Not only did the Saints allow Brian Westbrook to rush for 116 yards in last weekend's divisional round, but Jeff Garcia threw for 240 yards and averaged eight yards per attempt. Despite only completing 15 passes on the day, Garcia hit Hank Baskett for 25 yards, Reggie Brown for 32 yards, and Donte' Stallworth for a 75-yard touchdown. Cornerback Mike McKenzie knows the Bears well from his time in Green Bay and is still a pretty good cover man, but his partner, Fred Thomas, has had a target on his back for quite some time. Free safety Josh Bullocks is just a second-year player with three career interceptions, and Jay Bellamy has been forced to step in at strong safety with Omar Stoutmire battling knee and hip injuries. Muhsin Muhammad knows how to get the job done in the postseason and Bernard Berrian had a 100-yard effort last week, so the Saints will have their hands full.
Grossman is no slouch when he's feeling it and posted a passer rating better than 100 seven times this season, and many of those performances came against equally-outmatched defensive backfields.