Here's the biggest lie in play-off football: You dance with who brung ya...you don't get away from your tendencies...you do what you do best. The New York Giants danced with the other guy's wife on Sunday. They lined up in a brand-new defensive formation. They squashed the Chicago Bears' running game, and they earned the right to meet the San Francisco 49ers for the NFC championship with their 31-3 victory at Giants Stadium.
Here's another lie: You play 'em one at a time...you don't look too far ahead. Far ahead? The Giants began their preparation for the Bears on Dec. 29, the day before they met the New England Patriots in the last regular-season game. They began it on the plane to Boston, when backup strong safety Dave Duerson, seven years a Bear, four times a Pro Bowl player, sat down with tight-end coach Mike Pope and gave him the scoop on his former teammates.
"Mike's the guy who draws up all the cards on what the offense is going to do, so I thought he should hear what I had to say," Duerson said after Sunday's game. "We discussed the Bears' personnel, and I told him that if we were going to run, Richard Dent [Chicago's right defensive end] was the guy to run at. He stunts a lot. The guy on the other side, Trace Armstrong, plays the run well.
"I'd like to think that what I said had some effect, because a lot of what our quarterback, Jeff Hostetler, did was 'check-with-me' play calls; he made his call when we got to the line of scrimmage. It was a good idea, because he could see if they were lined up in their 46 defense, for instance, with both linebackers on the same side, and then run at the weak side."
January 21, 1991
Hostetler's passing stats were minimal—10 of 17 for 112 yards—but the Giants' running game took charge in the middle of the second quarter, with New York ahead 10-3, and put the game away. The final tally was a thumping 198 yards on 48 carries, despite the fact that rookie halfback Rodney Hampton broke his left fibula after only two carries.
On Jan. 2, during the Giants' week off before the divisional playoff, Duerson sat down with defensive coordinator Bill Belichick and his staff. "For an hour and a half I kept saying, 'The run, the run, if we shut down the run, we're in control,' " Duerson said. "I felt that we had to get big people in there, to match their offensive philosophy with our defense, and then [the coaching staff] told me they were going to switch from our regular 3-4 to a 4-3 [replacing linebacker Steve DeOssie with 6'6", 275-pound tackle Mike Fox] and bring a safety up close."
Someone asked Duerson on Sunday if perhaps he felt like a traitor, handing over all that information about the guys he fought beside and bled with for so many years. "Not at all," he said. "I played there seven years. I gave the Bears all I had. Now I'm a Giant. I have no regrets."
New York's Lawrence Taylor called the new alignment "not really a true 4-3, more of a wide-tackle six-man line, because the outside linebackers, me and Carl Banks, were playing so close up."
Pepper Johnson, normally the weak inside linebacker in the 3-4, was the middle linebacker on Sunday, a position he had never played before. "My responsibility was to look for Neal Anderson's cutbacks," he said of Chicago's leading rusher, "but our two tackles, Mike Fox and Erik Howard, were doing such a good job stuffing everything inside that I wasn't in on a whole lot of tackles." The overall result was 27 yards rushing for the Bears, their lowest total in 23 years.
The Giants' idea was to force the game into the hands of quarterback Mike Tomczak, who has been starting in place of injured Jim Harbaugh, and the Bears obliged by stubbornly running the ball on eight of their first nine first downs (for a net of 16 yards), giving Tomczak a succession of third-and-long situations.
Early in the game, however, Tomczak, a six-year pro who came into the NFL as a pure free agent, did better than expected. He shocked the Giants with a neat 37-yard pass to wideout Wendell Davis on the game's second play. The Bears would have been in field-goal range three plays later had Anderson not dropped a pass. Dennis Gentry mishandled Tomczak's next throw, and cornerback Mark Collins picked it off and returned it 11 yards to set up a Giants field goal.
So how much did this matter, really, this orgy of strategy? "Look, we've seen plenty of four-man lines," Anderson said afterward. "We've got a veteran line that knows how to block it. It's not so much the formation, it's the athletes they put in those positions."
New York's offensive philosophy was to throw early to take the edge off the Bears defensive linemen and then come back and pound them with the run. The Giants' first TD drive featured the pass, the second was on the ground. O.J. Anderson, showing an amazingly fresh pair of legs for a 33-year-old back with 12 NFL seasons behind him, did most of the work.
The joker in the deck was Hostetler, who had done well in subbing for Phil Simms during the regular season but was an unknown commodity in the pressure-filled playoffs. It was his running, not his throwing, that gave Chicago headaches. He converted two fourth-down plays on bootlegs, scored a TD on another keeper and ended with 43 yards on six carries. He gives New York another element, something the 49ers didn't have to worry about when they beat the Giants and Simms 7-3 last month.
Against the Bears, the big advantage New York had was an extra week to prepare for the game, a result of the new playoff formula that awards byes to the two division champions in each conference with the best records while the third division champion—in this case, Chicago—and the three wild cards are knocking themselves out. Only one of the four playoff games last weekend, the AFC matchup won by the L.A. Raiders 20-10 over the Cincinnati Bengals, was close until the end—and in all four cases the well-rested home team won. By adding two teams to the playoff mix—in order to put two more games on TV—the NFL had created that most dreaded of conditions: competitive imbalance.
Now the Giants and 49ers, the NFC's two best teams, will meet again to determine the conference's representative in the Super Bowl. New York doesn't have to worry about making exotic defensive changes to stop San Francisco's running game, because the Niners don't have one. Joe Montana is enough to worry about.
"I'm sure Montana's eyes had to light up at the way we were throwing the ball," said Tomczak, who ended up 17 of 36 for 205 yards and was not sacked. "They could play a 10-9 game against the Giants, or it could be 30-3, either way. It's NFL championship football."
Where you dance with whoever's around.