After the Bears routed the Patriots 20-7 at Soldier Field last Sept. 15, Chicago safety Gary Fencik said, "This was easy. This was so laid out for us." New England's unimaginative offense had been an open book, an easy read. The night before, Bear defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan had told his players, "If you execute this game plan there is no way you can lose." Said Fencik, "I don't think I've ever seen Buddy so confident."
As prologue to Super Bowl XX, the first Chicago-New England game didn't read well at all. How would these September Patsies, with their stuffy offense, even reach New Orleans? One had to wonder.
Chicago's domination of New England was so total that both Jim McMahon and Walter Payton (he played with sore ribs, and gained only 39 yards on 11 carries) rested much of the second half. The Bear defenders sacked Tony Eason six times, intercepted three of his 35 passes and battered him in the pocket. They held Craig James to five yards on seven carries and the Pats as a team to just 27 rushing yards. Incredibly, they kept New England out of Chicago territory entirely for all but 21 seconds of the game. "Eason was getting confused," said Chicago linebacker Mike Singletary. "First a guy came from the right, then the left, then up the middle. I don't care how good a quarterback you are, if you haven't been in this league that much and you haven't played against the Chicago Bears, it's pretty tough."
"The Patriots have a predictable offense," added Fencik. "They're not going to surprise you. When they came out in certain formations we knew from their tendencies that they would run the ball. In the second half, when they were behind, we thought they might change...but no."
The only New England score came on a 90-yard touchdown pass from Eason to James in the fourth quarter—a swing pass the Bears misread. Other than that, as Eason said, "We were humbled." Patriot guard Ron Wooten noted that the Bear defenders "beat us physically" in the first half, then changed fronts in the second. "They went to various stunts and gave us whole new looks," said Wooten. "We were frustrated and confused."
New England coach Raymond Berry claimed afterward that his team had lost because of poor execution, not predictability. But in the weeks that followed, he began to disguise his formations and throw some wild cards into his play-calling. Eason's passing role had diminished radically by the last game of the regular season, when he threw just 15 times. In the three playoff games, he averaged just 14 throws. During the same period, James averaged 23 carries and 100 yards a game.
"When the Bears beat us the first time, we didn't have an offensive identity," says James now, and he's right. A key facet of that identity appeared when Steve Grogan, subbing for an injured Eason, started calling James's number more often. The New England passing game became more effective later in the season as well. Perhaps from having studied the veteran Grogan in action, Eason came back from his separated shoulder injury in November a noticeably more mature quarterback. Before Eason and his Patriot teammates line up on Super Sunday, however, they will have to put behind them all memories of a long and horrific September afternoon in Chicago. And they will have to remember their new identities.