Following a loss to the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 2 and a less than impressive victory over the Indianapolis Colts six days later, the 13-1 Chicago Bears were forced to spend much of this week, according to safety Gary Fencik, "answering questions about whether we're for real."
Today at Giants Stadium, the Bears improved their record to 14-1, beating the New York Jets, 19-6, in conditions more suited to Chicago's Soldier Field, which is where the Bears are planning on spending their postseason until a Jan. 26 Super Bowl date in New Orleans. They already have clinched the home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Jets entered the game in first place in the AFC East and left tied for second with the loser of Monday night's Miami-New England game. Today, the Jets' incentive -- better position in the playoff scramble -- literally gone with the wind.
"Bear weather, that's what we call it," linebacker Mike Singletary said, and it appeared that way as Chicago limited the NFL's top-rated passer, Ken O'Brien, to 12-for-26 for 122 yards and sacked him four times in the Jets' first home loss this season. The Jets' offense, ranked No. 2 in the NFL, was limited to 11 first downs.
The temperature at game time was 35 degrees, with winds gusting to 28 mph. The Jets, who won the opening coin flip, chose to kick off. At the start of the second half, the Bears' choice was to put the wind at their backs in the final quarter.
According to Chicago Coach Mike Ditka, that made it imperative that New York, which trailed, 10-3, at intermission, score during the third quarter. And the chances of that happening seemed enhanced when the Bears punter, Maury Buford, averaged a meager 20 yards on three kicks into the wind. And the Bears failed on a fourth-down attempt deep in New York territory.
But Fencik and the rest of the Bears defense came up with three sacks and a pair of fumbles while holding the Jets to a lone field goal.
"I thought the defense just took the game away from them," said Ditka. "They had to score to win and we forced them into key turnovers that were just incredible."
Both turnovers were caused by defensive end Richard Dent, who stripped the ball from O'Brien on consecutive possessions, although the Bears failed to score after either.
"There's a lot of pride on this team, every week," Dent said. "We lost one game we shouldn't have lost and people talked about us. Now we're not planning on losing any more games until next season."
The Bears' scoring leader was Kevin Butler, who kicked field goals of 18, 31, 36 and 21 yards. Chicago's touchdown was scored by Tim Wrightman, who caught a seven-yard pass from Jim McMahon. McMahon completed 15 of 31 passes for 215 yards.
The Bears' victory today resembled their win over Indianapolis in lack of firepower. Running back Walter Payton was held to 53 yards on 28 carries, the first time in 10 games that he failed to break 100 yards. The team also converted just five of 17 third-down situations, only one of 10 in the second half.
"The wind was tough and so were their fans," said McMahon. "We were trying to change the plays but the guys couldn't hear the audibles.
"There were a lot of tough situations but we did enough good things to win."
Such as limiting the Jets to just 67 yards in the second half. A mere 31 of those came in the air as O'Brien, who beat the Bears' rush in the opening two quarters by throwing quickly, had to abandon the strategy in an attempt to catch up. With the change came more pressure from the Chicago rushers and the Jets' subsequent problems.
The game's only touchdown came with 4:02 gone in the second quarter, Wrightman scoring on McMahon's pass. It seemed that the 80-yard, 12-play drive that led to the score was something of a gift.
With first and 10 from their own 40, a McMahon pass to Willie Gault appeared to be intercepted by Kirk Springs, who tipped the ball and then seemed to grab it while lying on the ground. Television replays seemed to confirm the play but after a brief conference, referee Fred Wyatt ruled that the ball hit the turf before Springs had made the catch.
"I definitely caught the ball," Springs said. "That was a 14-point swing because they scored and we didn't."
Was that the difference in the game? Were the Jets good enough to have beaten the Bears? "No, not really," he said candidly. "Not when you get beat 19-6."
The question for Chicago now is whether 19-6 is a convincing enough win for the fans. "All we ask is that our guys play hard and don't quit, and when people can fault you for that, well I don't know what to say," Ditka said. "Maybe you do spoil people when you win."
If so, Bears fans probably will get a few more chances to be overindulged.