CHICAGO, JAN. 8 -- The Chicago Bears finished serious preparations for the Washington Redskins this morning, leaving South Bend, Ind., in a heated bus. Bears players called the week in South Bend a gigantic success, and running back Walter Payton said the team aura is "different from any time I've been here. Don't ask me why. I'm just telling you."

Payton admitted the Bears were "looking past" the Redskins in the playoffs last year, which he says might be why the Redskins won, 27-13.

"But this game, it's all we've been talking about," Payton said. "We sleep, eat and drink this game."

Practices, held in a heated gym, have been closed to the media all week, but Bears players say Coach Mike Ditka spent much of his time with the defense, telling them to "strip, strip" the football. The Bears were a minus-20 in the all important giveaway/takeaway ratio this season, whereas they were a plus-23 in their 1985 Super Bowl season.

Also, only Kansas City had fewer interceptions than the Bears this season, and Chicago has started its last 56 possessions in its own territory.Gault to Return Kickoffs

Wide receiver Willie Gault will return kickoffs Sunday for the first time this season. Ditka remembers Gault returning a kick for a touchdown against the Redskins in 1985 and figures, "I'm just trying to put a little more of a speed element back there."

Gault, by the way, turned down an interview with a Washington area radio station this week, saying: "Ah, man. They'll ask me about Darrell Green." Green's assignment Sunday, of course, is to shadow Gault.McMahon Is Bears' Patton

Offensive coordinator Ed Hughes, asked if quarterback Jim McMahon is a spiritual lift to his teammates, said: "Without a doubt. It'd be like Patton stepping in front of the tank brigade." . . . The Bears will decide Saturday whether center Mark Rodenhauser (sore shoulder) will play Sunday. Rodenhauser snaps all placekicks and punts, and if he can't go, John Adickes will snap punts and Jay Hilgenberg will snap placekicks. . . . The latest weather forecast for Sunday: Partly cloudy with a low of 5 degrees and a high of 20. There was a chance of snow tonight, though Saturday is supposedly going to be partly sunny with highs in the teens. By the way, the wind-chill factor today was minus-3 degrees. . . . Renewing a tradition from their 1985 Super Bowl season, the Bears will be served red-skinned potatoes stuffed with alligator meat on Saturday. Restaurant owner Steve Locke served the Bears alligator meat before their NFC championship victory over the Rams in 1985, and he believes it's time to get superstitious. Meanwhile, the Redskins will have appetizers catered into their hotel on Saturday, and Locke says the menu will consist of red-skinned potatoes stuffed with alfalfa sprouts -- "wimp food," Locke said.

"You are what you eat," he said.

By the way, Locke served the Rams quiche in 1985. The Bears won, 24-0.