The Washington Redskins are two victories away from reaching their third consecutive Super Bowl.
On the one hand, kick returner Mike Nelms says, "We're so close, we can almost reach out and touch the bad boy now."
On the other, Coach Joe Gibbs prefers to look at the roadblocks and not the road signs.
The Redskins will play the Chicago Bears in a division playoff game today at 12:30 p.m. at RFK Stadium (WDVM-TV-9) for the right to play San Francisco in the NFC title game at Candlestick Park next Sunday.
"The Bears do things that can scare you," says Gibbs, who has done his best to tell his players that, in any dictionary, Ditka comes before Walsh, Payton before Tyler and Fencik before Hicks.
"There may be only two games left until the Super Bowl," Redskins free safety Curtis Jordan said, "but they may be the two toughest games ever known."
Most of all, the Bears (10-6) can scare teams by handing the ball to running back Walter Payton, the league's all-time leading rusher who ran for 1,684 yards this season, or simply by placing their blitz-bonkers defense on the field.
After all, the Bears possess the league's top-rated defense (No. 1 against the run, No. 2 against the pass), which accumulated a league-record 72 quarterback sacks this season.
"We should be ready for any blitz or look that the Bears' defense gives us," reasons wide receiver Charlie Brown. "I think this year we've already seen every (defensive) look that there is."
Odds makers favor the Redskins by seven points. Perhaps this is because the Redskins have won their last seven games at RFK Stadium or because they have won all seven playoff games they have played at RFK. You sense a trend here?
"I told our players, very simply, that there is no way that they can envision what they are going into because they have never played anywhere like that," said Chicago Coach Mike Ditka, whose Bears arrived in Washington late Friday and practiced at the University of Maryland yesterday. Ditka compared RFK to playing in Seattle's high-decibel Kingdome. "You've got 52,000 people and you don't have any friends."
If you were to dissect the 1984 seasons of these clubs, this would be the likely scenario today:
The Bears will run Payton again and again, making the Redskins prove their reputation as a tough run defense (99 yards per game this season). When quarterback Steve Fuller throws, likely it will be short. It's the method St. Louis used to devastate the Redskins' defense two weeks ago and, of course, Fuller has not made his professional mark as a deep-throw passer.
Meanwhile, the Redskins' offense must stop the Bears' pass rush, made formidable by the defensive line (end Richard Dent had a conference-best 17 1/2 sacks) and made frenzied by safety and/or linebacker blitzes.
Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann has been sacked 14 times over the past two weeks of mass blitzing by Dallas (eight sacks) and St. Louis (six). The Redskins expect the Bears to follow suit.
"I expect them to blitz 65 percent of the time," quarterbacks coach Jerry Rhome said. "But we're planning for them to blitz on every play."
Theismann was battered after the last two games. His back hurt, his knee hurt, his shoulders hurt. Remember, though, Theismann has missed only one start (in 1980) since he replaced Billy Kilmer as the Redskins' full-time quarterback in 1978.
While Theismann says he feels fine now, he also says, "I needed these last two weeks of rest -- bad."
As always, the Redskins will try to generate the Riggo Drill, which John Riggins has turned into a record six consecutive postseason games with 100 yards rushing or more. More often than not, Riggins will run toward all-pro linebacker Mike Singletary, among the league's best run defenders.
"This is the whole season I've looked forward to," Riggins said in his midweek press conference. Riggins did not seem to be bothered by pains in his hips or lower back in practice this week.
Payton remains Redskins Concern No. 1. The Redskins can't expect to hold Payton to five yards on five carries, which they did in a 24-7 victory in 1981. Before that game, Payton had suffered a knee injury while trying to keep one of his young children from falling down the stairs.
"He only played that game to keep his (games played) streak alive," Gibbs recalled.
And what of Fuller? He has just returned from his second shoulder separation of the season. In between injuries, he completed 53 of 78 passes (68 percent) for three touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Bears have used six quarterbacks this season, including No. 1 starter Jim McMahon, who is sidelined for the rest of the season with a lacerated kidney. Some feel the Bears without McMahon would be akin to the Redskins without Theismann.
How troubled has the Bears' passing game been this season? Consider that starting wide receiver Willie Gault, who posseses world-class speed, has not had 100 yards receiving in any game this season.
"When you're in the position we're in, you can't worry about (McMahon's absence)," Ditka said. "If they want to take (Fuller) lightly, they might get a big surprise."
Jordan added, "Fuller is like a phantom quarterback to us. We don't know much about him."
A victory today not only means advancing to the conference title game, it also means $18,000 per player above the $10,000 both winners and losers earn today.
Besides the home-field advantage, the Redskins also possess an advantage in postseason experience.
The Bears haven't been in the playoffs since 1979 and haven't won a playoff game since they took the NFL championship in 1963. Thirty-five of their 49 players never have been in a playoff game. Only four Redskins have never participated in a playoff game: rookie running back Keith Griffin, rookie quarterback Jay Schroeder, receiver Rich Mauti and linebacker Trey Junkin.
"I don't know if that will make a difference on Sunday," Ditka said. "The thing I try to dispel is that we're not the '63 Bears or the '67 Bears or the '78 Bears. We're the '84 Bears . . . We have our own identity, our own problems, our own pride."
Gibbs feels the Redskins, too, have found their identity. Perhaps it was fitting they made their final roster move of the season yesterday, activating reserve tackle Morris Towns from injured reserve and placing seldom-used running back Jeff Moore (hamstring) on the injured list.
This represented the Redskins' 23rd roster move since the start of the regular season. It helps that the Redskins are as healthy as they have been all season.
"I characterize this as a team with a lot of guts," Gibbs said. "It hasn't played as well as we might have liked at times, but it's played with guts."