Just when it seemed the Chicago Bears might bungle enough plays today to let the Green Bay Packers pull the upset Washington Redskin fans wanted. Walter Payton, Avellini and the Bear offense took control and brought Chicago a 21-10 victory.
In cold (wind-chill factory minus seven degrees fahrenheit), Soldier Field, the Bears held the ball 10 minutes 33 seconds of the final 12:46 and moved within one victory of gaining the playoffs for the first time since 1963.
If the Bears beat the New York Giants next week and Minnesota loses to Detroit, the Bears would win the NEC Central Division title. If the Vikings beat the Lions, Minnesota wins the title, regardless of what Chicago does. If both the Bears and Vikings lose next week, the Vikings win the title by virtue of a three-point head-to-head point differential.
Should the Bear not win the title and find themselves tied with the Washington Redskins in overall record, the criterion of point differential in conference play would be used to break the tie and determine the wild card team. The Bears hold a 44-point advantage in that category.
The Redskins' 26-20 victory over St. Louis Sunday left the Bears' destiny in their hands and, to a man. Chicago players said that result buoyed their effort in this typical Central Division brawl today.
"The guys were kind of hyper," explained right guard Revie Sorey. "We just had to get settled down."
Payton supplied the running and Avellini the passing to bring the Bears their clinching touchdown early in the fourth quarter. They used the final 7:16 for a drive from their seven. Time ran out at the Packer 17.
Payton finished with 163 yards and two touchdowns in 32 carries and needs 201 yards against the Giants to break O.J. Simpson's one-season NFL rushing record of 2,003 yards.
"Hey, you need 200 yards," center Dan pfeiffer yelled across the locker room to Payton. "Don't worry, we'll get them for you next week."
"Old Billy Kilmer came through for us," said Avellini, the former Maryland star.
"Tell Kilmer I think he's great," Avellini added. "I like him. He gets the most out of what he's got and then some."
The Redskin game generated 50 such excitement among the Bears that linebacker Doug Buffone, the defensive signal caller, turned off his television set.
"It felt like I was playing," said Buffone. "It took too much out of me."
Avellini, completing big passes to James Scott and using Payton effectively, drove his team 80 and 64 yards for a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter.
Green Bay came back to score in three plays following the next kickoff and, after Payton returned the ensuing kickoff 68 yards, a number of plays developed that, alone would make a complete NFL Follies film.
Kick snapper Dan Neal centered a one-bouncer to holder Vince Evans, who juggled the ball and the Bears never got to kick a relatively chip-shot field goal.
Art Best called a fair catch on a Green Bay punt. Teammate Doug Plank ran into him, the ball bouncing off Plank's back and the Packers recovering.
The Bears ran a double-reverse that wide receiver Bo Rather fumbled and the ball wound up in possession of Bear tackle Dennis Lick.
Avellini, dropping back to pass near his end zone, stumbled and fell in safety territory. He regained his footing and threw an interception.
But the Packers, with rookie David Whitehurst at quarterback, were unable to take advantage of these mishaps.
Twice they drove inside the Bears' 25 only to be stopped - on a fumble by Nate Simpson late in the first half and by a holding penalty that nullified a 15-yard Simpson run to the Chicago 21.
"No, I never thought we were not in control," said Avellini. "Tennis are coming in and shooting for us because we've got one of the better teams in the league. What are we supposed to do? Blow the team out. I don't see many teams blowing out their opponents these days in this league."
And, for Buffone, the Bears are virtually within one victory of what he promised Bear fans three years ago when Jack Pardee became coach.
"I said in three years we'll be in the playoffs," said Buffone, a 12-year veteran and the lone remaining Bear who played under George Halas. "It better come true next week."