The Bears have given up an average of 25.8 points in their last five games. And not counting Sunday's playoff victory over the Seahawks, the other four opponents had a combined record of 23-41. So there should be considerable concern regarding the Bears' ability to control the explosive offense of the Saints in this week's NFC Championship Game. New Orleans had the No. 1 offense in the NFL in total yards and passing yards, and the Saints scored eight more offensive touchdowns than the Bears during the regular season.
The Seahawks' Shaun Alexander pounded the Bears for 108 yards Sunday, but the Saints' Deuce McAllister had a much better season running the ball, adding 143 yards in Saturday's victory over the Eagles to the 1,057 that he accumulated during the regular season while sharing the job with rookie big-play threat Reggie Bush, who also caught 88 passes.
Quarterback Drew Brees led the NFC with a 96.2 passer efficiency rating and 26 touchdown passes, and he was No. 1 in the entire NFL with 4,418 passing yards. The Saints' passing attack is so potent that it has continued to flourish without four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Joe Horn for the past several weeks. Horn, who turned 35 this week, averaged 18.4 yards on 37 catches before suffering a groin injury that may keep him out Sunday. But rookie Marques Colston, a seventh-round pick from Hofstra, stepped up with 70 catches, 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns. And wicked-fast third-year wideout
Devery Henderson averaged a league-best 23.3 yards on 32 catches with five touchdowns.
"Pick your poison," said Bears defensive end Adewale Ogunleye. "Drew Brees is a phenomenal quarterback. Deuce McAllister is probably one of the best running backs in the league. They've done a good job of spelling him with Bush. He's a mismatch in a lot of matchups. "We've got to really be on our 'A' game playing against this team.
The Bears haven't brought their "A" game on defense in quite some time. While none of their first 10 opponents managed 300 total yards against the Bears, each of the last seven have exceeded that total, although it took the Seahawks one extra possession in overtime to do so.
Counting their 27-24 conquest of the Eagles last Saturday, the Saints have scored at least 27 points in seven of their past 10 games, including a total of 72 points against the Cowboys and Giants, both playoff teams.
"(Offensively) you'd have to say that they've played as well as anyone in the league this year," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "Drew Brees had an outstanding year. Deuce McAllister is a heck of a running back."
Statistically, though, the Bears' defense is much superior to any of those NFC East teams.
"They have lots of weapons," Bears strong-side linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer said. "They're averaging close to 400 yards a game (391.5 in the regular season). That's moving the football. But they say that great pitching beats great hitting, and I think that great defense beats great offense. That's what we think it will be a matchup of."
Part of the difficulty in defending the Saints is the diversity of their rushing attack. McAllister began slowly this season coming back from a torn ACL in his knee, but he has been a load lately with more than 100 yards in four of his last five games.
"I know McAllister's going to carry the load," nickel cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. said. "He's going to be the big, bruising back. We have to keep him under 100 yards. We have to stop him. Stopping the running game means stopping him. But Reggie Bush can break it any time. He can make the big play at any time; he's like Devin Hester. He can go long, he can get crazy, go left to right, reverse field and run all over the place and end up in the end zone. I think they both pose threats, just different threats."
--QB Rex Grossman has thrown 21 interceptions, including the Bears' one playoff game, but he has been picked off just four times in his past five games.
--WR Rashied Davis' 84 receiving yards in the divisional-round victory represented his most productive game of the season.
--WR Muhsin Muhammad had three catches for 38 yards last week and had a pass bounce off his hands and wind up as Rex Grossman's only interception. Muhammad has had more than 50 receiving yards just twice in the Bears' last eight games.
--TE Desmond Clark had one catch for 13 yards, and he has had more than 18 receiving yards just twice in the last nine games.
--RB Cedric Benson's three catches and 24 receiving yards last week were both season highs.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
The entire organization and many of the Saints' players may be new to this NFC Championship Game business, but first-year coach Sean Payton certainly isn't. Which is why it came as no surprise when Payton, who served as the New York Giants' offensive coordinator when they played in the NFC title game in 2000 and took a 41-0 win over the Minnesota Vikings, was cool and calm Monday as he prepared to lead his Saints into uncharted waters.
When the Saints (11-6) play the Chicago Bears in Soldier Field on Sunday with the chance to advance to Super Bowl XLI, Payton wants to make sure that everything is as normal for a regular-season game.
Payton stressed it was business as usual even as everything around him suggested anything but. A larger-than-normal media contingent, including reporters from Chicago and New York, was on hand for his weekly news conference, which lasted 53 minutes -- about twice as long as usual.
"The one challenge is always trying to eliminate the distractions during the work week -- media requests and ticket issues," Payton said of getting ready for an NFC Championship Game. "Trying to minimize those things and staying on schedule is the goal."
Which is why Payton made it a point to tell reporters that the team's schedule this week will be "exactly the same" as for any Sunday game. As a result, the Saints started the work week by watching film of their 27-24 win over the Philadelphia Eagles and did some running and lifting -- which is what they always do on Monday after a game.
The players, who got Sunday off because they played the Eagles on Saturday night, were also off Tuesday. They'll practice Wednesday through Friday and have a walkthrough on Saturday before flying to Chicago.
While they're going to be all business this week, Payton said the Saints will take the time to appreciate how far they have gotten -- considering that they were picked to finish dead last in the NFC South and the franchise had never advanced past the divisional playoffs in its first 39 years of existence.
"This is the fourth opportunity for me in the postseason in nine years in the NFL," Payton said. "They don't come around every year. It doesn't come around 10 or 15 times in your career."
--QB Drew Brees completed 20 of 32 passes for 243 yards and one touchdown -- an 11-yard game-winner to Deuce McAllister -- in the Saints' divisional playoff win over the Philadelphia Eagles. Brees had a long pass of 35 yards and a passer rating of 96.2 in the second playoff game of his career.
--RB Deuce McAllister set a club playoff record when he plowed through the Eagles for 143 yards and a 6.8 average on 21 carries. McAllister posted a long of 28 yards to set up a field goal and added a 5-yard touchdown run in the third quarter in which he carried several defenders into the end zone. He also caught four passes for 20 yards, including an 11-yard TD from Brees.
--WR Marques Colston caught a team-high five passes for 55 yards in the win over the Eagles. Colston had a long of 19 yards, which set up a short touchdown run by Reggie Bush in the second quarter.
--WR Devery Henderson started in place of an injured Joe Horn against the Eagles and caught one pass for 35 yards. That catches set up a John Carney field goal in the first quarter.
--TE Mark Campbell caught just one pass for 23 yards, but he was extremely instrumental with his blocking in a running game that produced two touchdowns, 208 yards and a 5.6 average on 37 carries.
--SLB Scott Fujita had four total tackles and two quarterback hurries, but he had two textbook tackles in the fourth quarter to help the Saints hold off the Eagles. He dropped Thomas Tapeh for a 2-yard loss on a third-and-1 screen pass at the Saints 4 in the fourth quarter to make the Eagles settle for a field goal, then stopped Brian Westbrook for no gain on second-and-11 near midfield on the Eagles' final drive.
--RDE Will Smith had five solo tackles and two quarterback hurries as he helped the Saints apply a lot of pressure to the Eagles' Jeff Garcia.
--FS Josh Bullocks was all around the ball with three tackles and three passes defensed although he dropped two potential interceptions.
--RB Reggie Bush rushed for 52 yards on 12 carries and a 4-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. He also caught three passes for 22 yards.
--TE Billy Miller had four receptions for a team-high 64 yards in his most productive outing since being re-signed by the Saints midway through the regular season.