A year ago, Brees had a surgically-repaired throwing shoulder and was jettisoned in San Diego in favor of the unproven Philip Rivers. New Orleans gambled on the former Purdue Boilermaker and signed him to an incentive-laded five-year contract with the potential to pay him $50 million. All he did was set the world afire with his aerial display, throwing for 4,418 yards and 26 touchdown passes and finishing second behind LaDainian Tomlinson for NFL MVP. Even with Joe Horn - the most decorated wide receiver in Saints history - missing a good chunk of the season due to injury, Brees racked up eight 300-yard passing games and posted a scorching 96.2 passer rating. Nobody had ever heard of Devery Henderson or Terrance Copper before 2006, but Brees made them integral parts of the No. 1 offense in the league.
McAllister played just five games in 2005 after tearing a knee ligament and looked like he could possibly be on his way out of the Crescent City after the Saints landed Bush in the draft. But McAllister came back strong with 1,057 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns this season and continued to be the primary ball-carrier. He looked just about unstoppable last week against the Eagles, flattening would-be tacklers on his way to 143 yards on 21 carries. The Bears have had a tough time stopping no-nonsense runners since the season's midpoint and have surrendered big days to Frank Gore (111 yards), Ronnie Brown (157), Tiki Barber (141), and Shaun Alexander - 26 carries for 108 yards and two TDs - just a few days ago.
Even Brian Urlacher hinted this week that his defense may be in trouble because every time the media asked him about preparing for Bush, he talked about preparing for McAllister.
3. The dominant Bears defense we saw earlier in the year is long gone
When the Monsters of the Midway were 7-0, the city was abuzz with talk of an undefeated march to Miami and comparisons to the larger-than-life 1985 squad that won Super Bowl XX. But with Mike Brown out for the season with yet another lower-leg injury and Tommie Harris soon to be sidelined with a torn hamstring, the Bears started to look human again in the middle of the schedule. The last four games of the regular season, defensive coordinator Ron Rivera's unit was being gashed like never before by some pretty pedestrian attacks in Tampa Bay and Detroit. Seattle came into last Sunday's divisional playoff game just 19th in the league in total offense, yet until Tank Johnson sacked Matt Hasselbeck with just a few ticks left in regulation, the Seahawks were almost in position for a game-winning field goal. In plain English, this defense simply is not as good as their overall ranking - fifth in the NFL and first in the NFC - would indicate.
If the Bears surrendered 24 points to bruised-and-battered Seattle last week at Soldier Field, Brees & Company could post a mighty big number.
2. New Orleans has been playing with house money for quite a while
Coming off of last season's nomadic 3-13 effort, very little was expected of the 2006 Saints. Sure, a healthy Brees would be an upgrade over the erratic Aaron Brooks and Bush brought some much needed excitement to a team that needed it desperately, but nobody could have anticipated such a scintillating turnaround. An 8-8 performance would have been a big step in the right direction, so a 10-6 mark and a division title had to have come as a shock to even the most overserved reveler on Bourbon Street. Even if they had been beaten at home by the Eagles in the divisional round, Sean Payton's first year as head coach was already a stirring success and one of the best stories the NFL had seen in years. Now that they're one step away from Super Bowl XLI, it's nothing short of pandemonium in creole country this week.
The Bears were expected to compete for a championship this season and will have the weight of the world on their shoulders Sunday, while the Saints will be pressure-free and critic-less should they come up short.
1. If there was ever a team of destiny in the NFL, it has to be the Saints
You may not be a big believer in all that backwoods voodoo John Cusack discovered in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, but you have to admit that an awful lot has gone right for the Saints this season. Signing Brees was a gamble, but his shoulder proved to be more than healthy as he delivered the best quarterbacking effort in franchise history. McAllister shows no ill effects from last season's torn knee, and if the Texans had any clue what they were doing, Bush would be in Houston right now. Marques Colston almost went undrafted this past April, yet he was the most productive receiver in football for half the season. Both the Panthers and Falcons crumbled down the stretch and essentially handed New Orleans the NFC South title, and the rest of the conference was bad enough to secure them the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye despite just a 10-6 record.
Whether it has more to do with Payton's offensive system or powerful spirits rising from the creepy mausoleums along Canal Street is hard to tell, but the Saints certainly seem to have Lady Luck on their side.