The clock finally struck midnight for the Cinderella New Orleans Saints.
One of the greatest feel-good stories in the history of the National Football League ended on the snowy fields of Soldier Field in Chicago.
The Saints high-powered offense was derailed by a tough Chicago Bear defense, four critical turnovers and the defenseís inability to force Bears quarterback Rex Grossman to turn the football over.
In the 39-14 victory over the Saints, the Bearsí defensive front were impressive, constantly putting pressure on Saints quarterback Drew Brees and causing turnovers with aggressive tackling out on the field.
The Saints offense showed little signs of life in the first half. And with turnovers giving the Bears offense good field position, the team that forced more turnovers than any other club in the NFL in 2006 (44) took a 16-0 lead.
The Saints made a furious dash to the half with outstanding catches by Marques Colston. And quarterback Drew Brees hit the rookie wide-out with a 13-yard touchdown pass to close the first half with a 16-7 deficit.
The Saints again electrified their fans when Brees hit running back Reggie Bush out in the flat with a short pass, which he took to the house with an 88-yard touchdown catch.
That closed the Bears lead to 16-14. Then the Bears defense and special teams took over the contest.
After a terrific punt by Bears kicker Brad Maynard, who constantly pinned the Saints in bad field position, the Bears defense put heavy pressure on Brees in the end zone - and an errant pass went nowhere near a receiver.
The Bears got a safety out of the play and they also regained the momentum they had firmly grasped in the first half.
Grossman pieced together his best passing effort of the game with four straight completions. And with a great catch by wide-out Bernard Berrian, the Bears hit on a 33-yard touchdown pass and never looked back.
As a matter of fact, the Bears scored 21 unanswered fourth quarter points and before the whistle blew to end the game, they were packed for Miami and Super Bowl bound.
While it isnít sexy football, the game came down to the Bears aggressive defense forcing four turnovers ... the Bears winning the critical special teams game, especially with kicker Robbie Gouldís three field goals and his excellent placement on kickoffs ... the punting prowess of Maynard ... and the Bears running game amassing 196 rushing yards.
When you lose in a playoff setting, the feeling of finality quickly sets in, but for Saints fans - when you have time to digest the season - you really couldnít ask for anything more.
It was a great and unexpected ride to the top of the NFL mountain. And there is great hope for the future.
This Saints football team is talented. They now understand what it will take to get back to the top.
The disappointment will last for a while, but it will also re-focus this team on what they need to do to take this club up one more notch.
There will be quite a few changes in the off-season for the Saints.
Expect the team to add a quality cornerback, linebacker and defensive tackle.
Also, this team has a huge void opposite rookie standout wide receiver Marques Colston at receiver.
But the building blocks are here for another high ride in 2007.
I see Brees, Deuce McAllister, Reggie Bush, Colston, and four of the five offensive linemen being signed for 2007 and players like Will Smith, Mike McKenzie, Scott Fujita and Brian Young will also return.
The Saints will have considerable salary-cap room in 2007 to go after premium free agents and they also will have six draft choices within the top 140 selections in the 2007 NFL draft.
For a state and community that needed something to rally around, the Saints gave our region something to cheer for and to bond with.
As disappointing as it was to see the season end that way in Chicago, it was really a saintly ride back to football respectability. It was wonderful to see that a team that finished with the worst record in 2005 can come one game away from a Super Bowl berth.
Thanks guys, it was one whale of a ride and you gave us all what we really needed at this time ... hope for the future.
Oh, by the way, not that I am bitter about the Saints loss to the Bears, but I sure will be pulling for Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLI.