EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J., JAN. 13 -- The New York Giants threw a four-man line and a slightly simmering backup quarterback at the Chicago Bears today, then added a dash of offensive e'lan and goal-line bravado into a mix that moved the NFC East champions to within one game of the Super Bowl.
The Giants snuffed the Bears' potent running game and rode quarterback Jeff Hostetler's wounded pride and poise, four fourth-down conversions and several big defensive plays near their own goal to a 31-3 victory before a Giants Stadium record crowd of 77,025.
"In games like this, one team's the teacher, one's a pupil," said Bears Coach Mike Ditka. "We were the pupil today."
The Giants will pack paper, pencils and playbooks and move on to San Francisco to take on the two-time defending champion 49ers Sunday at 4 p.m. EST for the NFC championship. The winner will face the AFC champion Jan. 27 in Super Bowl XXV in Tampa.
The Giants believe they can get there, even without regular quarterback Phil Simms. He was still wearing a cast this morning on his right foot, injured four weeks ago, and is not expected to be available next week, if at all this season. New York also lost rookie running back Rodney Hampton with a broken leg today, though 12-year veteran Ottis Anderson more than took up the slack, gaining 80 yards in 21 carries.
"Jeff Hostetler's the man right now," said Giants linebacker Pepper Johnson. "The guy has proven himself plenty of times. No one here is worried about Jeff. We know he can do it, and he knows he can do it."
Hostetler was doing it every which way he could today, completing 10 of 17 passes for a modest but important 112 yards, throwing for two touchdowns and scrambling for another, one of his six runs for 43 yards.
"I felt like it was David and Goliath," he said. "I had a lot of doubters. It got old during the week, that was frustrating, but my teammates had confidence in me. Just in the little things they said."
Today, it took a few new looks from Coach Bill Parcells, who inserted a fourth lineman as opposed to the usual 3-4 front, then watched with great glee as his defense handled anything the Bears tried to run or throw at it.
Neal Anderson, the NFC's second-leading rusher, managed only 19 yards in 12 carries, and the Bears did not have a first down on the ground, the first time that had happened since 1957.
Meanwhile, quarterback Mike Tomczak, who regained his job with Jim Harbaugh's December injury, watched his receivers drop at least a half-dozen passes. He also tossed two interceptions in going 17 of 36 for 205 yards. That hardly helped his cause, nor did Chicago's inability to score on two glorious opportunities with first downs at the Giants 6 in the second period and at the 7 late in the third.
The Giants opened a 10-0 first-quarter lead on Matt Bahr's 46-yard, ricochet-off-the-upright field goal and a 75-yard drive kept alive by a daring fourth-and-one pass from Hostetler to tight end Bob Mrosko. On the next play, from the Bears 21, Hostetler passed to wide receiver Stephen Baker, who beat single coverage by cornerback Vestee Jackson in the left corner of the end zone.
Early in the second quarter, the Bears had fourth and goal at the 1. Ditka, as usual in these situations, called on fullback Brad Muster to get the ball in. The Giants said they knew he was coming, they just didn't know from where.
Muster headed toward Giants tackle John Washington, who went over the top of Bears tackle Jim Covert and smashed Muster for a yard loss. The Giants took over, and, according to Washington, "we sent them a message. It definitely got them to thinking about not getting in, you could kind of feel that."
The Bears did salvage a field goal after forcing the Giants to punt out of the hole, but taking over with 6:17 left in the half, Hostetler again moved his team smartly. He picked up 10 yards on a naked bootleg on fourth and one at the Chicago 32, then passed five yards to tight end Howard Cross for a score and a 17-3 lead with 33 seconds left.
The Giants took total control on their first possession of the second half. Aided by a foolish personal foul on the kickoff by James Rouse, New York began at midfield, and Hostetler made two big plays.
On third and 11 at the 50, he scrambled and found Mark Bavaro on the sideline. The veteran tight end made the catch, dodged and dove toward the first-down marker. At first, officials ruled him a yard short, but the play was reviewed on instant replay and reversed when it was obvious Bavaro had been downed in bounds before his body had flown out.
Four plays later, on fourth and six, Hostetler scrambled away from the looming presence of 330-pound William Perry and turned the corner for 10 yards and another vital first down at the 26. On first and goal at the 3, he faded back to pass, then followed a block by Anderson into the end zone for a 24-3 lead.
The Bears had one final gasp smothered by yet another goal-line play on their next series. They went for a touchdown on fourth down from the 5 late in the third period. Tomczak got off his pass to tight end James Thornton, who caught the ball at the 2 and was smacked immediately by Johnson and fellow linebacker Gary Reasons at the 1.
"Tomczak got rattled. I was surprised he threw it there," said Johnson. "The guy made a good catch, but there was no way he was getting into the end zone. That would have been very embarrassing."
There was no embarrassment for the Giants today, though the potential exists next week when they face a 49ers team and its brilliant quarterback, Joe Montana, who edged them Dec. 3 in San Francisco, 7-3, for what turned out to be the right to play at home next Sunday.
"We'll be all right," Johnson insisted. "All quarterbacks are the same when you put pressure on them. They do things they don't want to do, they throw off their back leg, even Joe Montana. . . . We put a lot of guys in his face, he'll have to throw it away too. This team can play some defense, there's no question about that."
And with Jeff "David" Hostetler around, a little offense too.