The Chicago Bears' defense got the message: You're the best, and now, if ever, is the time to play like the best.
The message was delivered by a Washington Redskin team that had shoved the Bears around for three quarters and by the 55,431 fans in RFK Stadium who were trying to get their Skins into the end zone by sheer volume of noise. One more touchdown, just one more, that's all it would take, and then Washington would be through with this ugly, nasty bunch from Chicago, through with this vicious street fight of a game and into the NFC championship match against the 49ers. And possibly on its way to a third straight Super Bowl. But first there was this matter of the Bears to clear up.
Chicago held a 23-17 lead, soon to be cut to 23-19 by a deliberate safety, taken so Bear punter Dave Finzer would not have to kick from deep in his end zone. At the start of the fourth quarter, the Chicago defenders knew if they could keep the Skins out of the Bears' end zone for three, maybe four more possessions, Chicago would have its first postseason win since defeating the Giants for the 1963 NFL title.
The Bears' offense figured to be no help. It had put those 23 points on the board by a strange assortment of means, but now it was dying. Three plays and out. Nope, it would be up to the Chicago defense, No. 1 in the NFL against the rush, No. 2 against the pass and No. 1 overall, by a margin of almost 800 yards over Cleveland.
It would be an elemental struggle, the best defense vs. Joe Theismann, one of the game's best fourth-period quarterbacks. Hadn't Joe and the Skins pulled out their last two games, against Dallas and St. Louis, in the fourth quarter? The fourth quarter belongs to Washington.
On Sunday, all the Redskins got out of those final 15 minutes of play was three yards, net, on five possessions. The closest they came to scoring was Mark Moseley's 41-yard field goal try, which he pulled to the left. The score at the close of the period was still 23-19. It ended with a flurry of sacks and a rattled-looking Theismann and a very annoyed John Riggins, who was snorting on the sideline and pawing the turf and wondering why he had been dropped from the roster when it came down to the crunch.
Riggins had banged the ball over for his second one-yard TD of the day at the end of the third quarter to make it 23-17. He was to carry once more, a two-yard gain on the Skins' opening play of period four, and then it was curtains. Washington ended the game with 17 straight pass plays, the 24 yards gained washed by 23 yards lost in sacks. Four of the seven sacks of Theismann came in the fourth period, and there were lots more pressures and hurries and scaries.
Publicly, Riggins hardly addressed the issue, but privately he said, "I kept waiting for the call, waiting for them to give me the ball. You tell me what happened."
"I didn't have confidence in John at that point," Redskin coach Joe Gibbs said. "We were not gaining much with John earlier, and I felt our passing game was coming along."
Well, maybe there was something to that. Riggins had been big trouble for the Bears on the game's opening drive, picking up eight yards, five and five more on a shocking march against so formidable a defense, a drive that had lasted more than seven minutes and put three points on the board.
"Cutbacks, Riggins was killing us on cutbacks," Chicago middle linebacker Mike Singletary said. "We were ready for straight stuff, and he kept breaking it back. Then we adjusted."
Riggins carried 18 times after that opening triple. His longest gains were a trio of fours. The Bears were homing in on him. Those 18 carries produced only 32 yards, but maybe in the fourth period, with the Chicago defense tiring, it was time for the Redskins to come back with the big guy and pound the Bears, instead of trying to do it all with Theismann's arm. Dan Hampton, Chicago's All-Pro defensive tackle and a double-sacker of Theismann, thought so. "We weren't trying to just make Theismann hurry his passes," he said. "He'll stay in the pocket and take the hit; he's got a lot of guts. We all know that. We had to get him on the ground, one, two, three, four times. Then he'd start thinking about the rush. Someone said he looked rattled late in the game. Well, I'd be plumb rattled, too, if I was on the ground with 300 pounds on me. Nope, once we got into the flow of the game and got Riggins out of it, and they had to go to Theismann, that's what won the game for us."
The Bears' secondary was an inviting late-game target. Right cornerback Terry Schmidt, who started only because Leslie Frazier and Shaun Gayle were banged up, went down with a thigh injury late in the third quarter. His place had to be taken by Frazier, playing on a bad foot. That experiment lasted six plays, until Clint Didier, the Skins' 6'5" second tight end, caught a 26-yarder over Frazier, down to the two-yard line, setting up the final Washington TD. Then Frazier got the hook and Todd Bell, the Chicago strong safety, shifted over to the corner, and Dave Duerson, a nickel back, took Bell's spot. The Bears defense, cooked up by defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, is a cerebral thing, but now it had two guys playing out of position. Naturally there were mix-ups and a few mess-ups, but the miscues were covered up by the sacks.
Richard Dent, the Bears' lightning-quick 253-pound right end, collected two of his total of three sacks in the fourth quarter—plus a hurry, plus a deflected ball when he dropped back into coverage. Hampton got his two sacks, Steve McMichael, the highly underrated left tackle, got one, and so did end Henry Waechter, who was cut by Chicago in '83 and the Colts this season and finally was picked up again by the Bears when Mike Hartenstine got hurt in December. Ryan's system, which features an unusual alignment that sets two tackles and an end on the center and guards, man-to-man, breeds sacks. The Bears' 72 in the regular season set an NFL record.
A Redskin injury—right guard Ken Huff broke an ankle in the first period and in came Mo Towns, a Houston and Raider reject who had been activated the day before the game—created more difficulties for Washington. And what Gibbs feared most came to pass. Sacks.
All week, sacks had been a big topic of conversation around Redskin Park. Why had Washington been allowing so many? In those last two games, the Cowboys and Cards had dusted Theismann 14 times. Two of the five interior offensive linemen, the famous Hogs who started the last Super Bowl, were lost with injuries. And now the sackers and pillagers from Chicago were coming to town.
Gibbs' answer was something so secret that he closed practice for the first time in four years. He installed the shotgun. He'd never coached it. He didn't much like it. But he had to do something to keep his quarterback away from the snapping jaws. "A lot of the blitz sacks were in the two-yard area, near the line," Gibbs said. "I had to get Joe away from there. He loved it. He's been on my case about going to the shotgun for years."
"You won't have to look at the scoreboard to know if we're in trouble," Theismann said before the game. "If I'm leading in rushing, we're in trouble." At halftime Theismann wasn't leading, but the scrambling he'd been forced to do left him only two yards behind Riggins, 37 yards to 35. And the Skins were in trouble. They trailed 10-3, but even so they'd been doing the driving. They'd driven and scored, driven and fumbled, and driven deep again just before the half, only to get sacked out of field-goal range. The Bears had gotten a field goal after a fumble recovery and a TD on a pass, Walter Payton to tight end Pat Dunsmore, when the Skins had totally blown the coverage. "It scares you to see a guy that wide open," Payton said. "You're thinking, 'Don't overthrow it, don't underthrow it.' "
Chicago's third-quarter scores also came in unorthodox fashion. Wide receiver Willie Gault broke cornerback Darrell Green's tackle and turned a 10-yard out-pattern into a 75-yard TD. Then a roughing-the-punter penalty kept alive the Bears' second touchdown drive of the period. But as the final quarter opened they were backed up deep, reduced to running their three-play-and-punt offense and to asking the defense to keep the door slammed.
"I watched our defense like a parent watching his child on a bicycle for the first time," Payton would say. "Every time he wobbles a little bit, you wobble with him."
On Possession 1, the Skins started on the Bears' 36 and got sacked back to the 40. Possession 2 began on the Chicago 40 and Theismann ended up sacked back to his own 46. Then the Bears took the deliberate safety, and Washington put together its only mini-drive of the quarter, 21 yards to the Chicago 24. That ended in Moseley's missed field goal. Finally there were four unproductive plays from deep in their own territory as time was running out, and then two desperate ones as the clock made its final ticks.
"We'd been on the field a lot," Hampton said. "We were tired, sure, but those porkers on the other side of the line were tired, too. They sounded like Hoover vacuum cleaners."
"It was kind of a classic game, wasn't it?" said Mike Ditka, the Bears' coach. "I know the old man would have loved it. George Halas. It was his kind of game."
And defense. And team.