CHICAGO, JAN. 10 -- It started out all Chicago today. The frigid weather was Chicago, its first-string quarterback, Jim McMahon, who had won 28 of his last 29 starts, was ready and rolling, and there was the legendary Walter Payton helping the Bears put the first 14 points on the scoreboard.
But at the final gun, Payton sat on the bench alone and officially retired; McMahon looked stunned, and Coach Mike Ditka was more respectful of what Washington's Darrell Green, Doug Williams and Charles Mann had done than what his Bears had not done.
The Redskins won, 21-17, eliminating the Bears at Soldier Field for the second consecutive year and advancing to the National Football Conference championship game for the fourth time in Joe Gibbs' seven years as coach.
Only this time the Redskins will not have to play on foreign turf for a trip to the Super Bowl, as they did last year when they lost to the eventual NFL champions, the New York Giants, 17-0, in a one-sided game at the New Jersey Meadowlands.
Instead, they will play at RFK Stadium Sunday at 12:30 against the Minnesota Vikings for the right to their third Super Bowl appearance of the decade. A victory would send the Redskins to Super Bowl XXII in San Diego Jan. 31 against the winner of Sunday's Denver-Cleveland AFC title game. The Vikings will come into RFK as winners over the favored 49ers in San Francisco, 36-24, Saturday after crushing favored New Orleans, 44-10, in the wild-card playoffs Jan. 3.
"Getting taken out of the playoffs two years in a row in our own back yard is tough to swallow," Ditka said. "We had numerous opportunities today, but that's old hat. The Redskins just played well and beat us."
The Redskins, 4 1/2-point underdogs despite having the same record (11-4) as the Bears, won on the strength of Green's 52-yard punt return for a tie-breaking touchdown in the third quarter. Williams had helped erase Chicago's 14-0 advantage in the second quarter by setting up George Rogers' three-yard touchdown run with a key 32-yard pass to Ricky Sanders and then throwing 18 yards to Clint Didier for the tying touchdown.
The Bears closed to 21-17 on Kevin Butler's 25-yard field goal with 4:47 left in the third quarter, but their last serious threat ended when league interception leader Barry Wilburn picked off one of McMahon's passes in the end zone with 9:20 left in the game after the Bears reached the Redskins 14.
Williams, who replaced Jay Schroeder as the starting quarterback for this game after coming off the bench Dec. 26 to lead the Redskins over the Vikings, 27-24, in overtime, kept the Bears' offense off the field much of the rest of the game with clutch passes that complemented the good running of rookie Timmy Smith.
When the Bears did get a final chance, with about a minute to play, the Redskins' defense, which played one of its best games, stopped Chicago cold. In fact, the Bears' last play was a desperate swing pass to Payton, the all-time NFL rushing leader, who was stopped by Wilburn a yard short of a first down.
With Mann, Dave Butz, Dexter Manley, Mel Kaufman, Neal Olkewicz and Monte Coleman leading the way, McMahon never seemed to get into his rhythm after getting the 14-0 lead. He was sacked five times, three by Mann, and had three passes intercepted. The Redskins' secondary was exceptional, even after Green left the game with sprained rib cartilage on his right side suffered on his spectacular punt return.
Brian Davis, the Redskins' top draft pick who had trouble this season remaining on the active roster, almost scored on an interception in the third quarter and held his own against star receiver Willie Gault.
Mann, who sacked McMahon in the final minute, said, "It seems too many times that when we go in the prevent defense, as we did in the last minute, teams march down the field on us. This time we had to make something happen. We had a lot more at stake than a $10,000 check at the end. We had our pride on the line."
So the Redskins will return to RFK, where they have played for the NFC championship three times and won each time, defeating Dallas twice (1972 and 1982) and San Francisco (1983). Oddsmakers already have made the Redskins four-point favorites.
Some fans already were milling around RFK Stadium in the cold tonight and people were calling newspapers, television and radio stations for ticket information. Later, the Redskins announced that 2,000 tickets to the game will be sold Monday at the stadium box office beginning at noon. There will be a limit of two per customer. Other fans went to Redskin Park, the team's Virginia headquarters, to welcome the players home.
"Our fans are very important," Gibbs said. "The Vikings are playing the best ball in the league right now."