Few teams with such an impressive record have come under as much scrutiny as the Bears. Yet after pasting the New Orleans Saints 39-14 on Sunday, they are headed to their first NFL title game since the 1985 team obliterated the league and shuffled their way into the hearts of America.
This time Lovie Smith will lead them there, the first black head coach to make it to the Super Bowl in its 41 years.
"I'll feel even better to be the first black coach to hold up the world championship trophy," Smith said in the interview room after the game.
Smith's team did it in true Bears fashion - big plays on defense and a steady running game in the sleet and snow, ending the Saints' uplifting saga.
The Bears will play the Indianapolis Colts, who defeated the New England Patriots 38-34 in the AFC Championship Game, in Miami in two weeks. Indy head coach Tony Dungy was Smith's mentor and remains a close friend.
All the worries about how genuine the Bears' outstanding season was disappeared thanks to running back Thomas Jones, All-Pro kicker Robbie Gould and a defense that, while not dominant, made a handful of decisive plays.
"I am really into the great tradition we have with the Chicago Bears," Smith said. "I am just trying to get our football team up to that same standard Mike had his team at, especially that `85 team."
"We knew what the experts said," add linebacker Brian Urlacher. "It didn't matter. This is a great team win for our franchise."
But for a moment though in the third quarter, they seemed to be in trouble.
Reggie Bush's electrifying 88-yard touchdown catch and dash to the end zone pulled the Saints within two points, 16-14. But from then on, Urlacher and the Bears defense took over.
Chicago, which has won nine NFL titles but has been an also-ran for much of the last two decades, later went 85 yards in five plays in the worst of the weather. Often-criticized Rex Grossman had four straight completions, including a 33-yarder to a diving Bernard Berrian for the score that clinched it, sending the bundled-up fans in Soldier Field into foot-stomping hysteria.
"We had a great game today," said Grossman, who was just 11-for-26 for 144 yards but made no mistakes. "This is great and all, but we have one game to go."
Jones, who had all 69 yards on an eight-play drive - all on the ground - in the second quarter, scored twice and rushed for 123 yards. Gould nailed three field goals.
The Bears, who led the league with 44 takeaways, forced four turnovers. When NFC passing leader Drew Brees fumbled less than a minute after Berrian's TD, whatever karma the Saints carried this season all but disappeared.
Cedric Benson scored on a 12-yard run shortly thereafter, and from there it elementary.
Smith and Bears owner Virginia McCaskey, daughter of Bears founder George Halas, accepted the Halas Trophy moments after Grossman tossed the ball deep into the stands after the final kneel-down.
"This is why we play the game, to get to the Super Bowl and win," Urlacher said. "This overshadows everything."
It was a bitter, sloppy conclusion to the Saints' remarkable turnaround from a nomadic 3-13 season in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina's destruction to this winning season. As their city rebuilds, the team has provided an uplifting diversion for the city of New Orleans.
This was the first trip this far into the playoffs for the 40-year-old franchise, previously best known as the Aints, whose fans wore paper bags on their heads because the team was so perenielly bad.
Down 16-0 and throttled for 28 minutes, the Saints awakened late in the first half on a 29-yard third-down completion to Marques Colston, who previously had several drops and several more slips. Brees threw a pair of sideline darts, and Colston beat Charles Tillman for a 13-yard TD that temporarily changed the flow with 46 seconds remaining in the half.
It took New Orleans only 2:40 into the third quarter to make it 16-14 on Bush's spectacular 88-yard touchdown that ended with a bold taunting display. The rookie beat Chris Harris off the line, ignored the sleet and extended for Brees's looping pass. Then he sped down the left sideline and, at midfield, used one of those Heisman jukes to get past Danieal Manning.
As Bush neared the end zone, he turned and pointed tauntingly at the hopelessly trailing Urlacher before somersaulting into the end zone.
Backed up to their own 5-yard line on their next drive, Brees was called for intentional grounding in the end zone. By rule, the Bears were awarded a safety that pushed their advantage to 18-14.
That erased any momentum for the Saints, and Chicago scored on Berrian's brilliant catch at the 2. He was not tackled down and stood up to cross the goal line.
A Chicago blitz stymied New Orleans's opening drive. After Devery Henderson outfought Tillman for a 40-yard pass to the Bears' 32, an all-out rush on third down led to a sack by Israel Idonije and a Saints punt into the end zone.
It set a first-half trend.
Another sack by rookie Mark Anderson, Chicago's top pass rusher this season, was even more embarrassing to the Saints. Brees lost the ball on a fumble that eventually turned into a 25-yard loss by the time guard Jahri Evans finally recovered the ball.
But Chicago's offense went nowhere.
So the defense got things started. Harris stripped the ball from Colston, and Tillman returned it to the Saints' 36. After getting their initial first down on a 16-yard reverse by Rashied Davis, the Bears gambled on 4th-and-1 at the 4. Benson converted with a run up the middle.
But all they got was Gould's 19-yard field goal.
The sloppy footing was an issue all through the game, particularly once the cold rain, followed by sleet and snow, began falling. Runners, receivers, and returners kept slipping, and areas of the turf were gashed by halftime.
Gould's 24-yarder made it 9-0, and Jones had his personal touchdown drive that included a 33-yard run - the longest for the Bears all season.
Jones capped the ground march with a 2-yard run for a 16-0 lead. He also scored from 15 yards in the fourth quarter.