The blueprint for this first-round NFC playoff contest had victory stamped on it much earlier in the week.
The Bears' coaching staff had devised a game plan that exploited the considerable talents of running back Neal Anderson and fullback Brad Muster, while deflecting the big-play responsibility away from maligned public enemy Mike Tomczak.
The New Orleans Saints, the coaching staff felt, didn't have a snowball's chance in Soldier Field of beating the Bears Sunday.
The scheme was validated with a 16-6 triumph over the wild card-entry Saints (8-9) in front of 60,767 Soldier Field fans, who appeared chilled and thrilled to the bone.
Following the yellow brick road to the Super Bowl in Tampa on Jan. 27, the Bears (12-5) are off to meet the NFC East champion New York Giants (13-3) at 11:30 a.m. Sunday in East Rutherford, N.J.
The Bears emerged from their offensive shell of the last month by racking up 365 total yards. Anderson gained 102 yards on 27 carries and Muster added 71 yards on 12 attempts. Tomczak completed 12 of 25 passes for 166 yards and one touchdown to tight end James Thornton. He completed 6 of 8 during one stretch and misfired on eight straight during another spurt. Most importantly, he did not throw an interception or commit a major mistake.
"I was comfortable both weeks, but we just didn't seem to get any continuity last week. This week we knew exactly what we wanted to do and we executed well," said Tomczak.
"If you think back to how we got here, we got here with the ball in Neal's hands and we had to give it to him," said coach Mike Ditka of his 1,000-yard rushing Pro Bowler.
"The key to this game was not to make mistakes or turn the ball over and come out of it positive. Neal is a great football player and he plays hard for us. The same with Brad Muster."
The Bears led 10-0 in the second quarter after Kevin Butler booted a 19-yard field goal and Tomczak and Thornton hooked up on an 18-yard pass play.
Rookie cornerback John Mangum intercepted a Steve Walsh pass that caromed off the hands of Saints receiver Lonzell Hill. Then the first pass the Bears threw was a halfback toss by Anderson. The wounded duck somehow wound up in the hands of receiver Ron Morris for a 22-yard gain. Three plays later, Butler hit his 19-yarder.
Tomczak's TD pass to Thornton capped a six-play, 63-yard drive.
"The biggest problem before the game was that James Thornton sprained an ankle in warmups and we thought we weren't going to have him at all. Then he makes two big plays for us and does a good job blocking. He had to suck it up, believe me, because he really rolled it over in the pregame. I thought he was out for the game and we were making adjustments. But it never came down to that because James played almost every play," said Ditka.
"We would have liked to have scored more points on the board, but we were really trying to control the football as much as we could today," said Bears offensive coordinator Greg Landry.
"The only thing I talked to Ditka about was to throw more shorter passes for him so he could start out more positively. Against Kansas City (when Tomczak completed only five of 23 passes), all we were doing was throwing deep all day long. Although Mike can throw that, we wanted to establish some confidence in him. We threw some shorter patterns and he got some success with that."
The Bears were the benefactors of several key plays.
"A play here or there and it could have been a different ballgame. But we aren't going to dwell on that," said Ditka. "We are going to dwell on the fact that we came away with a much-needed victory today. When you come through Chicago in January, conditions are a little bit different than when you play wherever you play."
Leading 10-3 early in the third quarter after Morten Andersen drilled a 47-yard field goal late in the second quarter, the Bears sent Butler in to attempt a 45-yarder with a 14-m.p.h. wind at his back. The kick was blocked by Reggie Turnbull and returned 61 yards by rookie cornerback Vince Buck for an apparent tying touchdown.
But Saints cornerback Robert Massey was detected lining up offside.
The Bears had new life and wound up with a 22-yard Butler field goal for a 13-3 lead with 6:29 left in the third period.
"Sometimes these things aren't as pretty as people want them to be, but we played a very tough football team out there," said Ditka. "Our defense was relentless and they played well."
Andersen, who had a 42-yard field goal attempt blocked by the Bears' Trace Armstrong late in the third quarter, connected on a 38-yarder midway through the fourth to pull the Saints to within 13-6.
John Fourcade, who had taken over for Walsh (second-degree shoulder separation) in the second quarter, directed that Saints' drive.
The Bears offense began to sputter on their next possession. On third down and 11 yards to go from their own 19, Tomczak hit veteran Dennis Gentry on a clutch 38-yard pass play to keep the drive alive.
"Maybe the greatest play in the whole game was the catch by Gentry," said Ditka. "The throw was an outstanding throw. We had man coverage on a seam pass. Dennis got behind the guy and Mike put it right in there. Gentry has been here for nine years, as long as I have been here, and every time I turn around he is making big plays for us. He is just a great football player and a great young man."
The Bears advanced to the Saints' 4 before settling for a 21-yard Butler three-pointer and a 16-6 triumph, only their second postseason win in their last five tries. Tomczak has started both of those victories, the other coming against the Philadelphia Eagles 20-12 in 1988.
"It has been a tough week for everyone, but we pulled together," said Tomczak. "I am so thankful to have this team behind me and the support from the family that has been so close to me. This game was so meaningful for me." "I have always been happy with Mike. I don't have that problem. It is other people who have those problems in life," said Ditka, who temporarily forgot he had threatened to replace Tomczak with Peter Tom Willis immediately after last weekend's 21-10 loss to Kansas City.
"Next week will be a gigantic task for us," said Ditka. "The Giants are an outstanding football team. We are going to go up there and do our best and we will have everybody ready to play by Sunday."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times