Brendan, a Chicago-style dog and an Old Style would be a perfectly acceptable wager for a regular-season game, but I think the NFC championship deserves something a little more ceremonial. So, Josh, if the Saints win Sunday, I'll treat you to an honest-to-God Chicago-style Italian beef sandwich, dripping in gravy, lovingly wrapped in a selection of Jay Mariotti columns and accompanied by a tallboy of Special Export Light. You'll feast like a king, or at least like a precinct captain.
As for the game, I don't work for Scouts Inc. (yet), but I've always wanted to try my hand at matchups. Here's how I see the Saints and Bears breaking down.
This season, Drew Brees threw for 4,418 yards and 26 TDs, had a passer rating of 96.2, and taught a city how to dream again. Rex Grossman … Advantage: Saints.
"Deuce McAllister" and "Reggie Bush" sound like characters in a Melvin Van Peebles movie, while "Thomas Jones" and "Cedric Benson" sound like actuaries. That kind of encapsulates the difference between the two teams. The steady and unexciting Bears tandem actually surpassed the Saints' more-heralded combo in total rushing yards, but Deuce and Reggie are sweet sweetbacks who can bust a long run and catch passes out of the backfield. Advantage: Draw.
Marques Colston came close to winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, but I'm not sure how much of that was because his quarterback had the year of his life. That goes for the other Saints receivers, too. The Bears receivers are unheralded (OK, mediocre), but they've got good hands and breakaway speed, especially third-down specialist Rashied Davis. Plus, the Bears use their tight end to much better effect than the Saints. Advantage: Saints, barely.
Overlooked in the controversy over Tank Johnson's adventures in armament is the fact that, even without Tommie Harris, the Bears defensive line is pretty damn good. Adewale Ogunleye is three years removed from the Pro Bowl, and rookie DE Mark Anderson (12 sacks in limited action this year) is three years away. They're a little weak against the run, but they pressure every quarterback they face, and they're physical as hell. As for the Saints, DT Hollis Thomas has the most suspicious case of asthma since my sister forged a doctor's note to sit out of high-school gym. Advantage: Bears.
Chicago's Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs are the best linebacking tandem in the league, possibly ever. The Saints' Scott Shanle and Scott Fujita might be the first all-Scott linebacking tandem ever. Advantage: Bears.
Yeesh. They both sort of suck. Let's just skip this one.
On punts, Reggie Bush will out-return Devin Hester, and this isn't a prediction so much as a guarantee. Hester busted a punt return for a touchdown last week, but it was called back because of a penalty. He bobbled almost every other ball he saw, though, and I'm expecting the same this week. Even if Hester is a bit overrated, the Bears have the best coverage units in the league, a great punter, and a clutch field-goal kicker. Advantage: Bears.
Unfortunately, the bon temps will no longer roulez for the Saints, as the Bears defense will prove too fierce for Drew Brees and his Magical Arm. It'll be close, though: With the Saints down by three as the fourth quarter winds down, Joe Horn will score on a last-second touchdown and, in the resultant jubilation, will pull a BlackBerry out of his jock and e-mail a detailed celebratory rant to the Soldier Field scoreboard operator. Unfortunately, his trash-talking will be whistled "out of bounds" by the female referee from the Super Bowl Shuffle video, and the touchdown will be negated. Bears 20, Saints 17. New Orleans will get over it.
If Rex Grossman has two bad series in a row, the crowd will start booing for his removal—yet another reason why I don't want to be anywhere near Soldier Field. Guys, please. This isn't the preseason. Barring injury or overwhelming evidence of Robert Hanssen-level subterfuge, Grossman will play the entire game. As he should. Unless he has three bad series in a row.
Mike Ditka's recent comments about his residual anger from his 1992 firing by the Saints will get too much play from the broadcast team. Really, I love Ditka, but it's like the love you have for your Uncle Jerry, who gets liquored up on Thanksgiving and starts talking about how much he hates Germans. Does anybody care what Ditka thinks anymore? The man became a caricature somewhere between his aborted Senate bid and his supporting role in Kicking and Screaming.
Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson will outrush Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush by approximately 1 yard. Disbelieving East Coast media types will demand a recount. Ultimately, the game will go to the Supreme Court, where an 8-1 majority will decide that Joe Buck is a terrible announcer. (Ruth Bader Ginsburg will dissent.)
Finally, and most seriously: If the Bears don't win this game, they won't be back to the NFC championship for a long, long time. There is an urgency here for the Bears that does not exist for any of the other teams that are still alive in the playoffs. Our offense is not that good, our defense will soon get too expensive to keep together, and NFL parity means that nobody stays at the top of the standings for too long. So, the Bears need to win. This year.
Chicago is a football city. Its teenage boys masturbate to aerial photos of the 46 zone. (At least they used to.) Its men dress like George Halas, and its women are built like linebackers. To every true Chicagoan, Bears football is more than just a pastime. It is an intrinsic emotion. It is a necessity. Say what you will about Saints fans (whose ranks have swelled suspiciously over the past few weeks), but Chicagoans want this—need this—more than anybody. The only Chicagoans who don't want the Bears to win are the members of the 1985 Super Bowl squad. If these Bears win the big game, the '85 gravy train is over, and Steve McMichael will have to find a real job. On the bright side, though, a Bears Super Bowl victory will mean that 2006ers like Patrick Mannelly and Chris Harris can look forward to a comfortable post-football career peddling chintzy memorabilia and renting themselves out to parties. Sharing the wealth—that's what NFL parity really means.
And Josh, I'm looking forward to those beignets. Remember, I like them oven-fresh.