Mike Ditka said it was one of those games that people in his business later remember as a turning point. The Chicago Bears were 6-5 and clinging to a thread of hope of making the playoffs, and they were at RFK Stadium to play the Washington Redskins, who were 5-6 and just about out of hope.

The teams were tied, 14-14, when they went to the locker rooms at halftime. But when they came back out, with a lot of their season on the line, the Bears were beaten 24-0 for the second half and 38-14 for the afternoon.

Afterward, in a postgame tirade played again and again around the country, Ditka appeared barely in control of himself, saying he was embarrassed by the loss, that two or three of his players didn't belong in the NFL and that the Bears wouldn't win again in 1989.

He was right about not winning again, and as the Bears (10-2) and Redskins (7-5) prepared this week to play for the second straight year at RFK -- at 4 this afternoon -- Ditka remembers many things about that day. Mostly, he remembers how it changed Mike Ditka.

"I learned a lot about me," he said. "I learned about old dummy. I made a vow that the way I acted after that game wouldn't happen again. I didn't want anybody to ever be able to talk about my antics on the sideline again, and they can't say a thing this year. What really bothered me is my impressions of that game at the time were totally wrong. I didn't think we played as hard as we could have. After I went back and looked at the films, I saw that wasn't the case. We tried. We had some calls go against us and made some mistakes, and once things got rolling they were hard to stop."

So this year the NFL, which has watched Iron Mike knock down safeties, throw clipboards and grab assistant coaches for three decades, has been introduced to Mellow Mike, who says:

"If the score is tied or they're beating us by 50, there'll be no explosion. All those people waiting for the earthquake from me, it's not going to happen. It's an impossibility for me right now. It's just not that important. This is only a game to me."

He says the game was killing him -- witness his heart attack in 1988 -- and that he simply decided to care a little less. Several of the Bears, especially quarterback Jim Harbaugh and kicker Kevin Butler, have had sideline conversations, though, that sounded very much as if they were coming from Iron Mike and might swear that he cares as much as ever.

But few people have considered debating the point with Ditka. And besides, the change from tough to tender is as good an explanation as any to explain the turnaround of the Bears.

They've rebounded quickly from only their second losing season in Ditka's nine years and have already clinched the NFC Central Division championship, with the only remaining question being whether or not they'll get a first-round bye.

The Bears are good and the Bears do things the old-fashioned way, with a big, strong defense and an offense geared around Neal Anderson and the running game. Harbaugh throws only when absolutely necessary and he doesn't take chances, one reason he hasn't thrown an interception in his last 146 passes.

The Bears are the only NFL team with more rushing than passing yards, and Anderson (853) and fullback Brad Muster (560) are ranked second and 11th in the NFC in rushing. Anderson also leads the NFC in total yards rushing and receiving (1,298).

"The Bears are one of those teams that if you're not prepared you're going to get your head knocked off," Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said. "They come out with the idea of establishing the run and being very physical. You'd better be ready. You go into a game like this realizing Neal Anderson is going to make yards. You just hope to keep him from making big plays and hope you make a few in there yourself."

But the Bears have won more because of a defense that leads the NFL with 22 interceptions and is ranked statistically behind only the Giants, Dolphins, Raiders and Steelers.

Defensive ends Richard Dent and Trace Armstrong have combined for 21 sacks and will test one of the game's best offensive lines. The Redskins' blockers held Miami last week to its first no-sack game all season, and tackle Jim Lachey -- who will go one-on-one with Dent today -- was only the second lineman ever named NFC offensive player of the week.

It's also another kind of test for the Redskins, who last week proved they could beat a good team and this week are trying to show they can do it in back-to-back weeks.

They haven't won successive games since Weeks 3 and 4 and need the victory to keep pace with the 7-5 Philadelphia Eagles in the race to gain the wild-card playoff home field.

The Redskins had their best rushing day -- 222 yards -- in more than three years in the 42-20 victory over the Dolphins, and Gibbs credited a long, hard week of preparation. His message to his players Wednesday morning was that it would take the same kind of effort against the Bears.

A few hours later he pounded the point home with a 2 1/2-hour practice on the coldest and most uncomfortable day of the season. He followed with another on Thursday and said: "Historically, we play better when we work hard."

His players say they understood, which is not like agreeing, but he did get their attention.

"We know for us to be successful we have to work hard," Lachey said. "That has been the key to our success in the past and a key to our success last week. I think there's some type message in there in workouts like this. If we're going to be good, we have to work hard. We can't walk on the field and expect to win."

It hasn't been the same from week to week, and no one in the Washington locker room seems to know why. Receiver Art Monk called a Saturday night team meeting last week to discuss the problem and the Redskins believe today's game, with New England and Indianapolis on the schedule the next two weeks, will be a good test.

"We've got the talent here to do it," said Earnest Byner, who rushed for 157 yards against Miami and will be trying for his third 100-yard game in four weeks. "It's just that week to week we have to reach that intensity level. It's a shame for us not to put 20-25 points up every week. We haven't been doing our part. We have the talent. We have to have the want-to."

A victory this afternoon would leave them probably needing only one more victory to clinch a playoff spot, or as center Jeff Bostic said: "If we don't know what's on the line here these last few games, something is really wrong."

Redskins Notes: The Redskins are asking fans to bring a toy to the game for the annual "Toys For Tots" campaign. Members of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve will collect the toys. The Redskins collected about 18,000 toys last season.