The New York Giants learned a frightful lesson today at Soldier Field: If the Chicago Bears don't get you in this place, the wind will.
The Bears easily won their 16th game of the season, 21-0, to reach the National Football Conference championship game for a second consecutive year. They will play the Los Angeles Rams (12-5) here Sunday. (Brrrr.)
But, for as much as they mauled the Giants (11-7), allowing them only 32 rushing yards and sacking quarterback Phil Simms six times, the Bears owe a big assist to a timely, partisan, raw gust off Lake Michigan.
Punter Sean Landeta's foul-tip from his end zone, caused when the wind blew the ball away from him as he tried to kick it, bounced right into Chicago safety Shaun Gayle's hands for a touchdown that gave the Bears a 7-0 lead 9 1/2 minutes into the game.
That was all the Bears needed on a day when the wind-chill factor reached minus-13 and most of the 62,076 spectators actually were glad they weren't indoors in front of a fire.
Watching their Bears was too much fun.
After Landeta's minus-seven-yard punt, Bears receiver Dennis McKinnon, a forgotten man the last half of the season, caught two second-half touchdown passes from Jim McMahon to leave the Giants shivering in the cold.
"They came into our backyard," said Chicago Coach Mike Ditka. "We like to play in our backyard. We're pretty tough on this turf."
On this day, the city and its football team live up to their nicknames in the same three-hour time period.
Other than the fickle wind -- which was a prime factor in the three field goals Chicago's Kevin Butler missed and the 19-yard field goal New York's Eric Schubert banged into a goalpost -- there was an absolutely unrelenting defense.
It knocked Pro Bowl back Joe Morris, who gained 141 yards last week against San Francisco, out of the game. Morris gained just 32 yards on 12 carries, 10 in the first half before a tackle by William (The Refrigerator) Perry.
"The Fridge put the big splash on him," said Chicago defensive tackle Steve McMichael.
Morris suffered a slight concussion and wasn't a factor the rest of the game.
The Giants missed him badly, especially on the drive that was their only scoring opportunity of the game. They reached the Chicago two with a first down late in the first half, then Simms threw three straight incompletions before Schubert came in for the gimme field goal -- and hit the left post.
Morris was on the field for part of that series, but the Giants were reluctant to give him the ball.
Chicago defensive end Dan Hampton, who ripped open his hand on a helmet but still called this "a beautiful day," said if Landeta's punt didn't do in the Giants, that point-less drive did.
"It's hard to get to the two-yard line and get zip out of it," Hampton said.
This was no artistic success for the Bears, but then no one expected it to be. Walter Payton gained 93 yards but never broke a long one. McMahon threw short as often as he hit the mark.
But the Giants and Bears have been playing each other since 1925. They are the bruisers of the NFL. The Bears have the best defense and the Giants, coming into the game, the second best.
There was a wide gulf between No. 1 and No. 2 today. The Giants had the ball 13 times. Nine of those possessions ended up as three downs and a punt.
The Bears often switched to a three-man front, pulling out of their patented 4-6.
Simms and the Giants, stubborn to the end, continued to call deep drops in the pocket, which, against so fierce a rush, is the football equivalent of Russian roulette, with aptly named defensive end Richard Dent (3 1/2 sacks) pulling the trigger.
"We had a great rush up the middle," said Hampton.
Chicago defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan put in the three-man front for this game. "Buddy has a large bag of tricks," Hampton said.
It was easy to imagine a scoreless tie, the way this game carried on. If it weren't for that wind . . .
The Giants' Rob Carpenter fumbled near midfield to end New York's first drive, but from that point on, it was a punting duel through most of the first half.
On their third possession, the Giants were backed up to their 12 after a Dent sack, so, on fourth-and-20, Landeta came in for his second punt.
It hadn't been a particularly good week for the former Baltimore Stars punter. He got in trouble for scalping tickets outside Giants Stadium last week, even though he offered an autographed glossy of himself with each ticket.
His teammates then got into the act, turning his locker into a makeshift ticket booth for the sake of a few laughs.
But nothing was worse than what happened here today. The snap was a good one, he said. He dropped the ball toward his foot, then, in horror, watched as the wind took it away from him.
"I've never had a ball move like that," he said. "It gusted up a little bit, but I can't believe that happened. That never happens."
The Bears had a good rush on, which included Gayle.
"I watch the ball and the foot," Gayle said. "I couldn't believe it. I've never seen a kicker drop it, go to kick it and miss."
Landeta just got the side of his foot on the ball, sending it bouncing to the five-yard line, where Gayle short-hopped it and ran in for the touchdown.
Landeta, stunned, walked to his sideline.
"What happened?" Coach Bill Parcells asked.
"I missed it."
"The ball moved."
Gayle called it "the shot we needed at the time." Ditka said there was "no telling how the football game would have gone" without it.
The shanked punt, combined with the goal-line stand late in the half, kept the Bears ahead, 7-0, which in a game like this was more like 28-0.
Two things occurred in the third quarter to ensure the Bears' victory. They scored twice, which was a big help. And they knew the Giants had to throw in that quarter, because they would be heading into the wind in the fourth period.
"We knew what they were thinking," said Hampton.
Very few people know what McMahon is thinking, including Ditka. His first touchdown pass was normal enough, a 23-yarder into the corner of the end zone after Matt Suhey's version of the Riggo Drill tightened up the Giants' defense.
McKinnon, who hadn't caught a touchdown pass since Week 8, joined two other receivers and three defensive backs in the end zone, looking back at the last second to take the ball out of defender Elvis Patterson's hands.
"The ball was there and, all of a sudden, it was gone," Patterson said.