Posted: Monday January 22, 2007 1:32AM; Updated: Monday January 22, 2007 7:56AM
The Chicago Bears are shuffling back to Super Bowl for the first time since 1986.
Kevin C. Cox/WireImage.com
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CHICAGO -- The light snow that whipped across the jubilant faces of the Bears at chilly Soldier Field after a 39-14 victory over the Saints will be but a memory when the club travels to balmy Miami for Super Bowl XLI. But Chicago gladly gives up home-field advantage to face the Colts with Peyton Manning and Tony Dungy in their first Super Bowl together.
Chicago coach Lovie Smith -- wearing a toothy grin and a Bears baseball cap emblazoned "NFC Champions" -- has guided Chicago to only its second Super Bowl appearance. And Smith finds himself matching wits against his former boss and close friend, Dungy. The two are the first black head coaches to reach the Super Bowl.
Despite Chicago's rich tradition, the club hadn't been in a conference title game in 18 years. It's been about two decades - 21 years to be exact - since William "the Refrigerator" Perry did his Super Bowl Shuffle for a Mike Ditka team that featured Jim McMahon and Walter Payton, among others.
The Bears return to the grandest stage this season despite an army of doubters, and with a quarterback inexorably criticized for his inconsistencies. But the Bears point out that Rex Grossman takes a 15-3 record into the big game against Indy.
In Dungy's and Manning's cases, it's fitting that to reach their denouement they vanquished the New England club that ended their Super Bowl hopes in 2003 and 2004. Now Manning has a chance to rewrite his legacy as the best regular-season quarterback in NFL history.
Dungy, meanwhile, gets a shot at an elusive Super Bowl after being fired by Tampa Bay in 2002, ostensibly for failing to get that franchise over the hump.
This is the first time that the Colts have advanced to the Super Bowl since relocating in Indy from Baltimore in 1984. Herewith, the key matchups.
Peyton Manning vs. Brian Urlacher
Manning and Urlacher -- two of the best at their positions -- will have an intriguing cat-and-mouse game. Chicago's middle linebacker is smart and athletic, and he'll have to decipher which of Manning's audibles are authentic while properly aligning the Bears's defense. Conversely, Manning must keep Urlacher -- who is terrific in coverage -- off balance near the line of scrimmage. A huge factor in the outcome rests on the mental duel between Manning and Urlacher.
Joseph Addai/Dominic Rhodes vs. Chicago's linebackers
The Bears hope to make Indianapolis's offense one-dimensional by containing the run. Addai became the first rookie in NFL history to rush for at least 1,000 yards without starting a game. But Addai -- who replaced Rhodes as a starter for the playoffs - could find it difficult to gain yardage against Chicago's talented linebacking corps. The threesome flows speedily to the ball, tackles well and delivers punishing hits. If Addai can establish the running game, the Colts will open a wide margin by exploiting play-action passes. If the Colts are pass-heavy early, they will play into the hands of Chicago's tough defense.
Colts' wideouts vs. Bears corners
Despite Chicago's cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher often being required to defend one-on-one, they hold their own against most wideout corps. But Indy has arguably the NFL's best with two Pro Bowlers in Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, both of whom have exquisite timing with Manning. Because Harrison lines up almost exclusively on the right side, the All-Pro receiver will be guarded by Tillman.Chicago is known for using the Tampa 2, yet its defense is flexible because of a strong pass rush. If the Colts pass-block well, it will be difficult for Chicago to play anything but the Cover 2.
1. Devin Hester may seem to have cooled off since producing an NFL-record six returns for touchdowns during his rookie season. He hasn't scored in the postseason as teams have prudently kept the ball away from him. The one time he did return a kick for a touchdown, it was negated by a penalty. But one overlooked factor is that Hester has played two consecutive games on the slippery surface of Soldier Field. Now Hester will play in Dolphins Stadium, which should heighten his speed. Don't forget that Indy's special-teams coverage was shaky against New England's Ellis Hobbs. The Colts now face the NFL's premier returner.
2. After having the NFL's worst run defense during the regular season, a boost from safety Bob Sanders has helped Indy turn stingy against the run. The Colts are still vulnerable against the run, and could be especially so against a Bears run attack that likes to wear down its opponents. Chicago uses the tandem of Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson, a volatile mix of power and speed. Most teams that use two tailbacks have one change-of-pace runner. Although Jones is a little shiftier, there's not much difference between he and Benson. The Bears can't afford to have Grossman try to win the game with his passing. To beat Indy, Chicago must control the clock and keep its defense off the field against the Colt's no-huddle offense.
1. If Chicago turns to its Cover 2, it will give Indy tight end Dallas Clark a chance to find the seams and loosen up the coverage. Clark has good speed, which allows him to stretch the field and go one-on-one with a linebacker or safety. And Chicago is more vulnerable against tight ends without injured safety Mike Brown. When Indy breaks the huddle, Clark puts defenses in a dilemma because they don't know if the Colts will be in a two-tight-end set or a three-receiver set. Clark has essentially replaced Brandon Stokely as Indy's third wideout. So defenses are often forced to keep their base set.
2. Adam Vinatieri hasn't yet attempted a game-winning kick for Indy. But as the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history, he remains an important weapon if the Colts can move the ball deep into Bears territory. Vinatieri has the most field goals in playoff history, and is perfect thus far in the playoffs.
The Bears lead the series 22-17, which includes games when the Colts played in Baltimore, before 1984. The last game between the two was in 2004, which Indianapolis won 41-10 in Chicago. Addai's predecessor, Edgerrin James, rushed for 204 yards on 23 carries while Manning tossed four touchdown passes. The Bears have won four of the past five. But before that stretch, the Colts won seven in a row.
Lovie Smith -- perhaps fittingly hired on Martin Luther King Day in 2004 - moved up the coaching ranks by building a sterling defensive reputation. Smith's imprint remains on Ron Rivera's defensive unit, which finished the regular season with an NFL-high 44 takeaways while being the NFC's top-ranked defense.
Smith has been the guiding force on a team roiled by controversy, including defensive tackle Tank Johnson's arrest for having 500 rounds of ammunition and assorted weaponry in his home.
Dungy has made the playoffs in nine of his 11 seasons as head coach. This season he quietly supplanted Joe Gibbs to become the NFL's winningest active coach. Dungy hired Smith as a linebackers coach at Tampa in 1996, and they were part of the staff that implemented the Tampa 2 before Smith departed for St. Louis for a job as defensive coordinator. Both teams will be extremely well-prepared, but Dungy gets the coaching edge because he has more experience in big games. And his offensive coordinator, Tom Moore,will devise a sharp plan against Chicago.
The Colts offense is too dynamic, especially against a Bears defense that hasn't been as dominant since injuries to defensive tackle Tommie Harris and Brown.The Bear have done well to make it to the Super Bowl, but Manning and Dungy won't be denied now that they're so close to that elusive title. Colts 31, Bears 24.