CHICAGO, JAN. 10 -- In the numbing chill at silent Soldier Field this afternoon, the Washington Redskins finally showed themselves -- and the watching football world -- just how good they can be.
Relying on another of their now-familiar rallies, the Redskins upset the Chicago Bears, 21-17, to advance to the NFC championship game next Sunday at 12:30 p.m. at RFK Stadium. Washington (12-4) will play Minnesota (10-7), with the winner going to Super Bowl XXII Jan. 31 in San Diego. Neither team was given much of a chance to reach the NFC title game, but there they are. Interestingly, they met just 15 days ago at Minnesota, with Washington winning, 27-24, in overtime.
After today's game, the Redskins said they've never been happier. Their joy was absolutely warranted. Trailing, 14-0, midway through the second quarter to the Bears and returning quarterback Jim McMahon, the Redskins stormed back to tie the game before halftime on little-used running back George Rogers' three-yard run and tight end Clint Didier's 18-yard reception of a Doug Williams pass.
They took the lead for good on an acrobatic 52-yard punt return by Darrell Green, who sprained rib cartilage on the third-quarter play and had to leave the game; he will be evaluated on a daily basis this week. Then in the final minutes, they simply held on for dear life, running legend Walter Payton out of bounds at the Chicago 43 a yard short of a first down with 31 seconds left to end the Bears' final possession, and the running back's storied career.
It was the second time in as many years that the Redskins came into Soldier Field and beat the Bears to advance to the NFC title game. Last year, the Redskins won here, 27-13, but lost the championship game to the New York Giants, 17-0. This time, they are favored by four to beat the upstart Vikings at RFK, where the Redskins won their last NFC titles, in 1982 and 1983.
"We're going to take the championship game back to our fans," said Didier, who re-emerged in the Redskins' offense with the touchdown catch with 51 seconds left in the first half to tie the game, 14-14. "Who would have thought that a couple days ago?"
It was even unthinkable during a good portion of this game, played before a bundled-up crowd of 58,153 that braved temperatures in the upper teens and a windchill of minus-23 degrees.
But the Redskins continually made clutch plays. Williams, who threw for 207 yards on a 14-for-29 day, converted on seven of 14 third-down attempts, including three that led to Washington touchdowns. The most important play of the game -- and perhaps the Redskins' season -- was wide receiver Ricky Sanders' 32-yard catch on third and nine at the Redskins 42 that carried to Chicago's 26. Three plays later, Rogers scored.
Meanwhile, the Washington defense, holding McMahon to less than 200 yards passing (197), intercepted him three times in the second half, one by cornerback Barry Wilburn in the end zone to snuff out a possible go-ahead Chicago touchdown in the fourth quarter. And defensive end Charles Mann had another outstanding game, sacking McMahon three times for 20 yards.
"When somebody disrespects you like they did us, it gets you incredibly fired up," said Mann.
Early in the game, the Bears took advantage of a couple of Redskins mistakes. "As usual, we got ourselves in trouble early and came back," said Coach Joe Gibbs, now in his fourth NFC championship game in seven seasons as head coach.
For the fourth time this season, a Williams fumble set up an opponents' touchdown. It happened against Philadelphia, Atlanta and the Los Angeles Rams. It happened here, too.
On first down at the Chicago 45, Williams, starting in place of the benched Jay Schroeder, was blindsided by defensive end Richard Dent and fumbled 5 1/2 minutes into the game. The ball was kicked and rolled about 20 yards downfield, until defensive tackle Steve McMichael pounced on it at the Washington 30. After trying to throw on their first series without success, the Bears kept the ball on the ground this time, and running back Calvin Thomas finally scored on a two-yard touchdown run with 6:23 left in the first quarter.
Washington's next possession ended when Rogers lost a yard trying to run over left tackle on fourth and one at the Chicago 32 late in the first quarter. Rookie Timmy Smith entered the game the next time the Redskins had the ball and Rogers returned for just one play -- his touchdown run. Gibbs said later it wasn't necessarily the changing of the guard at running back for Washington, but it certainly did not bode well for Rogers. Smith gained 66 yards on 16 carries.
The Bears then held the ball 9:04 as they marched to their second touchdown, a 14-yard reception by wide receiver Ron Morris with 8:06 remaining in the half. On the play, Wilburn played about five yards off Morris, who found himself a huge opening in the middle of the field as the Redskins blitzed.
But for the Chicago offense, that was about it. Little did the Redskins know it, but they were about to catch fire. "I thought maybe 14 points was too much to make up," Didier said. "I thought we were in big-time trouble."
They weren't. The Redskins scored on their next possession, when Williams found Sanders for the 32-yard gain over the middle on an out-pattern that the wide receiver turned back to the middle of the field. A 14-yard pass to Didier took the ball to the Chicago 3 moments later, and Rogers took it over right tackle for the touchdown with 4:51 left in the half.
After the Bears' Kevin Butler was short on a 48-yard field goal attempt into the 12 mph wind, the Redskins got their opportunity to tie with 1:49 remaining. Sanders caught a 13-yard pass and was hit late by cornerback Maurice Douglass. The penalty took the ball to the Chicago 41. Gary Clark caught two passes for 23 yards, and, after two incompletions, Williams spotted Didier over the middle for his touchdown with 51 seconds left in the half. The two had practiced the play five times last week. Didier said Williams threw the pass before Didier made his cut.
Gibbs loves going into halftime with an emotional boost. His team got the physical lift it needed when Green, a swift, star cornerback, hurdled and dashed his way 52 yards with a punt for the game-winning touchdown with 11:40 left in the third quarter. Green held his rib cage as he ran the last 30 yards.
Green returned for one play, but was noticeably bothered by the injury and left. He was replaced admirably by the team's top draft choice, Brian Davis, who was beaten only once, by speedster Willie Gault on a 44-yard reception.
Butler kicked a 25-yard field goal with 4:47 left in the third quarter.
That left the fourth quarter. The Bears seemed just one McMahon miracle away from taking the lead. The Redskins appeared only one more first down away from putting the Bears away for good. They went on this way for most of the period.
The Redskins tried to surprise the Bears early in the fourth quarter with a fake field goal, but they surprised someone else instead. Themselves. Schroeder, the holder, audibled as he waited for the snap on what would have been a 35-yard Ali Haji-Sheikh field goal attempt.
But the crowd was too loud and Washington's receivers never heard the call. Schroeder, originally hoping to throw, took the snap, then got up and wheeled around, attempting to run outside. He slipped, however, and the Bears gained possession at their 25. They drove to the Washington 14, but McMahon threw behind Gault in the end zone, and Wilburn intercepted with 9:25 left.
There were two anxious late moments for the Redskins. After nickel back Dennis Woodberry intercepted McMahon at the Chicago 43, the Redskins faced a fourth down and inches at the 34. The Redskins called a timeout with 1:13 left. Williams tried a quarterback sneak, but he was stopped short, and the Bears took over.
Three plays later, McMahon threw to Dennis McKinnon at the Washington 46. He bobbled the ball, then lost it, and Davis recovered what the officials called a fumble. The Redskins rejoiced, thinking the game was over. But it wasn't. The instant replay review showed McKinnon did not have possession, and the call was reversed. The Bears had one more chance on fourth down, but Payton gained only seven of the necessary eight yards on a swing pass.
"As usual, nobody thought we could win, except us," said offensive tackle Mark May. "No one thought the Redskins could do it.
"Except the Redskins."