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When the New Orleans Saints visited Chicago last January, their surprising 2006 season came to a disappointing end.
On the verge of joining the defending NFC champions at home for the postseason, the Saints look to avenge last year’s playoff loss to the Bears and get some help to keep their 2007 season alive when they return to Soldier Field on Sunday.
New Orleans (7-8) and Chicago (6-9) met in last year’s conference championship game with the Bears ending the Saints’ improbable season with a 39-14 victory at Soldier Field. Both teams had been expected to challenge for the NFC title this year, but each underperformed and struggled to deal with injuries.
New Orleans lost its first four games of the season, but rebounded to win its next four in a row before again losing three of its next four. It failed to move over .500 for the first time with a 38-23 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday.
Despite the loss, the Saints stayed alive in the playoff race after the Minnesota Vikings lost to the Washington Redskins later that night. Now New Orleans needs to win Sunday and have the Vikings and Redskins both lose to gain a berth. Washington hosts Dallas while Minnesota visits Denver later Sunday afternoon.
“There’s always hope, but we’re not worried about any equations or anything like that,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said when asked about the Chicago game. “We’ve got pride and that’s what we’re playing for right now.”
Brees was 30-for-45 for 289 yards on Sunday against the Eagles, but he failed to throw a touchdown for the first time since a 16-13 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 7. He had thrown 10 touchdowns and just one interception in his previous four games.
It didn’t help that Brees lost his top receiver in Marques Colston, who left the game in the first half with a chest contusion that had him spitting up blood. Colston, who has caught a team-high nine touchdowns this year, is expected to play Sunday against the Bears, however.
The Saints will be without running back Reggie Bush, who has yet to fully recover from a partial tear of the PCL in his left knee. Bush, who leads the Saints with 581 yards and also has four rushing touchdowns, had missed the previous three games due to the injury.
New Orleans avoided putting Bush on injured reserve in the hopes he would be available for this game.
The Saints are also dealing with injury issues on the defensive side. New Orleans placed Mike McKenzie on injured reserve Monday after he tore his ACL against the Eagles. The cornerback had 52 tackles - 45 solo - this season.
His loss hurts an already struggling defensive unit. New Orleans’ opponents are averaging 364.9 yards - fifth-highest in the NFL - and 23.7 points per game - 12th highest.
Payton said despite the multitude of injuries the Saints have suffered this year, including a season-ending ACL tear to 2006 leading rusher Deuce McAllister in Week 3, there is plenty of fight left in his team.
“I think this is a team that’s pretty resilient,” he said. “They understand that we still have a game left and they understand that we have … to play well this weekend.”
Unlike the Saints, the Bears don’t have much more than pride to play for after they were eliminated from the playoffs following a 20-13 loss to the Vikings on Dec. 17.
Chicago, however, showed it wouldn’t end the season quietly, snapping its three-game losing streak with a 35-7 win over the Green Bay Packers last Sunday in one of the Bears’ best games in a frustrating season.
“Our team showed a lot of character,” Chicago coach Lovie Smith said. “When you’re not playing for a lot, for guys to come and give that type of effort, that really does show exactly what you have on your team.”
While it came too late to salvage their season, the Bears’ rushing attack, which is second-to-last in the league with 1,237 yards, produced a season-high 139 yards on Sunday against the Packers. Adrian Peterson rushed for 102 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries during a cold and windy day at Soldier Field.
“In these conditions, you have to be able to run the ball,” offensive coordinator Ron Turner told the Bears’ official Web site.
Chicago’s defense also stepped up, forcing Brett Favre into throwing two interceptions - both of which led to touchdowns. Brian Urlacher, who has shouldered much of the criticism for the defensive drop off, returned one 85 yards for a score in the fourth quarter.
“The defense has taken a lot of shots with our play that we’ve had this year,” Smith said, “but I thought last week (in a 20-13 loss to the Vikings) we took a step - even though they had a few yards against us - and I really thought this week we took another.”
This is the first time the Saints have visited Chicago during the regular season since 2002. Including last year’s playoff victory, the Bears have won two straight over the Saints after losing the previous three in a row.