MINNEAPOLIS, DEC. 6 -- Chicago Bears Coach Mike Ditka stood on a platform, a set of Vikings horns atop his head. A man who has played for a Super Bowl winner and coached one, he said he was as excited tonight as he's ever been in his football life. And while he may recant, his mood was understandable.

In a season already filled with the bizarre and inexplicable, the Bears outdid themselves in the Metrodome tonight, making a grand goal line stand, then getting Mike Tomczak's pass to Dennis Gentry for a 38-yard touchdown with 40 seconds left to defeat the Minnesota Vikings, 30-24.

Here were the Vikings, less than a minute away from changing the entire NFC playoff picture, just about to release the Bears' choke hold on the Central Division. Jim McMiracle was on the sideline with an injured hamstring and his team trailing by 24-23, with 62,331 fans waving Touchdown Towels.

But with that one pass to Gentry -- actually a dinky screen pass -- the Bears took the Vikings' breath away. That little screen pass from backup quarterback Tomczak to Gentry -- designed primarily to convert a third-down play and get the Bears into field-goal position -- turned into a 38-yard touchdown.

Forget Wade Wilson's three touchdowns in six passes that took Minnesota from two 13-point deficits to a 21-20 lead in the third quarter. Forget the Vikings' 24-20 lead early in the fourth, and the 24-23 lead that seemed sure to hold up. Forget about a changing of the guard in the NFC Central, at least for this season.

The Bears' victory gave them a fourth consecutive NFC Central title, the longest current streak in the NFL. It improved their record to 10-2 to set up a homefield playoff showdown with the 49ers in San Francisco next Monday night.

"I'm tickled to death," Ditka said. "I don't know how it happened. I've been excited before but never like this." He was so excited he even admitted he stole the winning play from the Cowboys, after watching them use it Thanksgiving Day on TV against the Vikings.

Minnesota, meanwhile, was left cold and depressed. Instead of being one game behind the Bears in the division and the proud owners of the best union record in the league -- the Bears now have that honor -- the Vikings have to fight it out for a wild-card spot.

Most of all, the Vikings couldn't forget their inability to score on any one of four cracks from inside the 2 late in the game. They were leading, 24-23, and Coach Jerry Burns figured that one measly yard there would put the Vikings ahead by eight with five minutes to play.

"They score there and the door is closed," Bears safety Dave Duerson said. " . . . it could have broken our backs."

He was talking about the game and the season. A loss tonight, and the Bears could have forgotten about home-field advantage. Maybe they would have to settle for the wild-card spot.

But the real Bears showed up at the 1 yard line, after Minnesota's Chris Doleman sacked Tomczak and forced a fumble, the sixth such play Doleman has made in six weeks. The real Bears showed up, not the guys who had let Anthony Carter catch two touchdown passes to turn a 20-7 deficit into a 21-20 Vikings lead.

The Vikings ran fullback Rick Fenny up the middle. No gain. Fenney up the middle on second down. No gain again, stopped by middle linebacker Mike Singletary.

Singletary probably should not have been on the field. He nearly lost the tip of a finger earlier in the game. The Chicago trainers pleaded with him to stay off the field, or play with one hand. "I thought, 'How can you be out there?' " linebacker Wilber Marshall said. " 'Why not just come in if we need you.' And he said, 'No. No way I'm going to leave you guys out there.' "

Wilson tried a quarterback sneak from the 1. No gain. Eight Bears seemed to hit him.

Singletary got the shakes, like he did in the old days when the Chicago defense was about to do something nasty to somebody. During a timeout, the Bears started begging the Vikings to go for the touchdown, not the field goal.

"They thought we were crazy," Duerson said. "We were asking them to go for it, literally begging them. I'm not surprised they did; they wanted to ensure the victory right then. But that's what we wanted. David Huffman {the Vikings' giant tackle} bet us a dollar they'd get in the end zone. Like me, he's a good Notre Dame man. I hope he's a man of his word and sends us a dollar."

On fourth down, the Bears felt the Vikings were dead. "They lined up too tight to pass, and we knew it," Marshall said. Darrin Nelson took a handoff and was swarmed for a four-yard loss with 4:57 left.

"Any time you have first down on the 1 and four shots, you better get it done," said Burns. "We didn't and the Bears deserved to win."

"That stand was the greatest goal line stand I've ever seen," Duerson said.

"It won the game for us as much as the touchdown," receiver Dennis McKinnon said.

There was still a little matter of points, and the matter of McMahon being on the sideline. Oddly, it was two years ago that McMahon came off the bench gimpy and threw three touchdowns in seven passes to provide a victory.

Now it was Tomczak's turn.

"The big victory here two years ago started our run to the Super Bowl," Duerson said. "And maybe tonight's will do the same thing . . . "