In a strike-marred season in which very little makes sense, no wonder the Chicago Bears stopped the Minnesota Vikings four times from the 1, then won with 40 seconds left on a 38-yard touchdown pass from the backup quarterback on a play designed simply to pick up a first down.
No wonder the Los Angeles Rams won their fourth straight game and are still fighting for a playoff spot; or that the Houston Oilers, after giving up nearly 100 points in the two previous games, are tied for first in the AFC Central; or that the fire under Dallas Cowboys Coach Tom Landry is being turned up full blast.
The Bears' 30-24 victory over Minnesota in the Metrodome Sunday night was just the finish of another strange week in the NFL. Among other things, it included the Vikings failing to try one pass from the 1 despite having a one-yard pass for a touchdown earlier; the Vikings giving the Bears 25 extra seconds by punting too quickly; Chicago middle linebacker Mike Singletary having the tip of a finger nearly severed, but only pausing to ask for a band-aid before going back into the game; players from both teams making wagers at the goal line on whether the Vikings could take it in from the 1.
At the end, of course, it was the Bears who were smiling. Coach Mike Ditka attended his postgame news conference wearing Viking horns atop his head as if they were a lampshade. "I'm tickled to death," Ditka said, his team having improved to 10-2.
Ditka might be a little less giddy by Wednesday, when the team and Jim McMahon will have to determine whether the quarterback will be able to play this weekend. McMahon injured his hamstring in the first half and left the field in the fourth quarter after aggravating it. "He can't touch it at all and can't walk on it," Ditka said yesterday. "He's very, very doubtful for San Francisco."
Even so, it was Chicago's first victory this season over a team with a winning record. And it was enough to make Dennis McKinnon, Chicago's boisterous wide receiver and punt returner, pull out his wallet again. McKinnon had already started offering bonuses to fellow special teams players for outstanding plays (like giving $200 the previous week to Al Harris for blocking two field goals).
McKinnon was in the Christmas mood, especially after the defense -- which he had publicly criticized -- stopped Minnesota for the fourth and final time from the 1, giving the Bears a chance to win the game. "There could be some big bonuses to come out of this," McKinnon said. "We could be talking about a grand, or two grand per man for those guys who were on the goal line stand."
The last five minutes in the Metrodome probably will affect the entire NFC playoff picture.
If Minnesota had scored a touchdown, to go ahead by eight points with five minutes left, the game most likely would have been over. Afterward, the Bears conceded as much. But because the Bears stopped the Vikings -- "The greatest goal line stand I've ever seen," Chicago safety Dave Duerson said -- and because Minnesota Coach Jerry Burns tried four straight running plays against the best run defense in football, the Bears trailed by 24-23 with five minutes left.
The Bears didn't score on the ensuing possession, but their defense held one more time, then got a bit of help from the Vikings' special teams. With only 90 seconds left, and the Bears having one timeout remaining, the Vikings had to punt. But Minnesota snapped the ball with only five seconds having elapsed from the 30-second snap clock and the mistake was compounded when Greg Coleman punted 33 yards. Four plays later, Mike Tomczak hit Dennis Gentry with the pass that went for the winning touchdown.
The play directly affected the Washington Redskins, because if the two teams finish tied (say, at 12-3) the Bears will have home field advantage if the teams should meet in the playoffs by virtue of records within the NFC. The Bears are 9-1 and have only one NFC game remaining, next week at San Francisco. The Redskins, 7-3 in the conference, can finish no better than 9-3.
The bigger home-field advantage question likely will be settled next Monday night in San Francisco where the Bears will play the 49ers. San Francisco has looked like the best team in the league for several weeks and will be favored. In effect, the winner will have a two-game lead because it would have control of the first tie breaker -- head-to-head games -- in case the two teams finish with the same regular season record.
With the unpredictability of this season, it's impossible to gauge which of the four NFC teams already in the playoffs -- the Bears, 49ers, Redskins or Saints -- has the best chance of finishing with the best record.
The Redskins finish at Miami and at Minnesota, two teams who will be desperate for a victory to get in the playoffs. The 49ers, after playing the Bears, should handle Atlanta. But the season-ending game with the Rams doesn't look so easy now that they have won four straight and could have a remote shot at a wild card spot. The Bears finish with what figure to be desperate Seahawks and Raiders teams.
It would be fitting in this season if New Orleans, which qualified for the playoffs for the first time in the club's history, held home field advantage throughout. The Saints finish at home against Houston, at Cincinnati and back home against the Packers, three very winable games that could leave New Orleans 12-3 and the NFL in shock.