New Orleans — In a ``best case'' scenario, historians might have preferred a Chicago-Miami Super Bowl, but what the National Football League playoffs have dealt isn't bad at all. In fact, the more you think about it, the better Chicago-New England looks. Windy City fans, of course, dearly wanted a rematch with Miami, which was the only team to smudge Chicago's 17-1 record. And with all their previous Super Bowl appearances, the Dolphins are more familiar to the public. But no one can argue that the Patriots don't belong exactly where they are, squarely opposite the grizzly Bears in Sunday's NFL championship game (4 p.m. central standard time, NBC).
New England, after all, has taken the John Houseman route to New Orleans -- it has earned the trip by beating three arch rivals on the road -- the New York Jets, the Los Angeles Raiders, and finally the Dolphins for the first time in Miami since 1966. No other team has come this far without at least one home playoff victory.
Thus New England (14-5) is a hot team -- a fact that should offset to some extent any significance attached to Chicago's 20-7 defeat of the Patriots earlier this season.
Both teams have improved, but most noticeably the Pats, who were offensive Patsies that September day. For one thing, the Patriots were missing wide receiver and league-leading punt returner Irving Fryar plus all-pro guard John Hannah. Also, their attack was so simple and predictable that Chicago tacklers usually knew just where to congregate. Consequently, they held New England to a pitiful 27 yards rushing.
Since then, the Patriots have entered the Era of Offensive Enlightenment, finding a conservative style that suits them, yet still incorporates elements of surprise.
One such surprise picked up on something the Bears were doing, which was to occasionally use a wide-body lineman in the offensive backfield. In Chicago's case, the player was William (The Refrigerator) Perry. In New England's variation, 285-pound lineman Steve (Big House) Moore lined up in the backfield in a midseason game against Miami but turned out to be a decoy in a pass play that went for a touchdown.
This made it clear the team's mental wheels were turning, and now there appears to be no end to the club's Yankee-style ingenuity. Witness the turnover-happy defense, which has become almost an annex to the offense with its own point-producing exploits.
The Bears though, have not given up a point in the playoffs. No defense has ever pitched a shutout in the Super Bowl, but these Maulers of the Midway seem capable. Two of the unit's hardest tacklers are safety Gary Fencik, a Yale graduate, and otherwise mild-mannered middle linebacker Mike Singleterry.
If, as one axiom states, defense wins Super Bowls, the Bears may own a slight edge. Some think, however, that the Patriots' ``back eight,'' (the linebackers and defensive backs) might collectively be the best in football.
An indication of the success both defenses have enjoyed is that the coordinators of each unit, Buddy Ryan for the Bears and Rod Rust for the Patriots, are leading candidates for head coaching jobs with other teams.
But of course head coaches Ray Berry of New England and Mike Ditka of Chicago deserve most of the kudos.
Ditka, a tough former tight end who played for the Bears' last championship team in 1963, seems to relish his team's working-class image.
Berry is the Mr. Rogers of the NFL, a man so quiet and selfless he almost seems a misfit in pro football's macho high-pressure environment. As a Hall of Fame receiver, however, he commands respect and has solidified an often-turbulent franchise.
Until this year the Patriots had won only one playoff game in their history, that coming in 1963. The Bears, an old-line NFL team, have had their moments of glory, but have spent the last two decades in a continuous audition for a quality quarterback.
Even the sensational running of Gale Sayers and now Walter Payton weren't enough to make the team much more than mediocre. In 1982, Chicago finally got the arm it was looking for by drafting record-setting quarterback Jim McMahon of Brigham Young.
McMahon is as loose and flamboyant as they come. He butts helmets with his linemen after a touchdown, draws the league's ire for commercializing his uniform, and generally thrives on being slightly outrageous.
By contrast, New England's Tony Eason, maintains a much lower profile. The third-year man out of Illinois has exhibited new composure since returning from a midseason injury and reminds some people of former Miami quarterback Bob Griese with his sparing but precise use of the pass. In three playoff victories he has completed 16, 14, and 12 passes and has not been intercepted once.
The Bears surely will dare Eason to go to the air, and if he can answer the challenge early enough, watch out. New England is 10-1 in games in which it has scored first. But then again, Chicago is 17-1, period.