Tommy Barnhardt's 44-yard boot floated to the right of cornerback Darrell Green, near the Redskins' sideline. He gathered in the ball at the Washington 48 and was off. Before the game, Green, who in 1986 won the NFL's Fastest Man competition, had worried about the weather. "I'm going to be cold," he said. "We are all human. We just can't be human on game day. I just hope they have some heat on the sideline."
Green provided his own heat along the sideline. He streaked fearlessly along it past his first two pursuers, carried by a remarkably elongated (Green is only 5'8") stride. Then, in a move that somehow combined a hurdle, a high jump and a half-twist, he bounded over Chicago tight end Cap Boso and changed direction in midair. It was a gold-medal move that defied belief as well as Green's own body. The contortion strained the cartilage in his rib cage, but suddenly Green had the entire field to himself. He coasted in with the 52-yard touchdown, holding his side in pain.
The Skins sensed then that they were one game from the Super Bowl. At least 10 teammates surrounded Green behind the end zone. "We're a team," Green said. "All the Bears hate each other, don't they?"
Before the game, Chicago offensive coordinator Ed Hughes had said that Green would be "scared" of Bears wide receiver Willie Gault. Green laughed off Hughes's remark. "[The Bears] would lock me in my car if they could," he said.
The punt return was pivotal for two reasons: It gave Washington seven points, and it took Green out of the game. Reenter Davis, a backup corner-back and a white one at that. As arresting as the sight of Williams, a black quarterback, might be, Davis, as a white cornerback, is of an even rarer breed. Davis had been seeing spot duty when he made that interception early in the second half. Wilburn, the other corner, would stop the Bears' last serious threat with an interception in the end zone with 9:20 remaining.
"We just aren't good enough with the people we have," said Ditka. "We have to make changes."
McMahon disagreed. "Oh, we're good enough. I just threw the ball into [Wilburn's] chest. That was the game."
Wilburn, who had nine interceptions this season, and Davis were nearly flawless in the second half, although Davis did allow a 44-yard completion to Gault late in the third quarter. Davis had Gault covered, but Willie managed to snatch the ball and spin away. It could have been a disaster for Washington, but there was Wilburn, five yards deeper than Gault. Wilburn locked on to him, and they danced, but Gault could not get away. Wilburn made the biggest tackle of his life, at the Redskins' 13-yard line. The Bears settled for a field goal. That made the score 21-17, and that's where it stayed. The Minnesota Vikings' incandescent Anthony Carter will meet a worthy challenger next week, whether it's Green, recovered from his injury, or Wilburn or Davis.
Thanks to McMahon, who was indefatigable even in defeat, Chicago maintained a glimmer of hope until the very end. On fourth-and-eight from his own 36 and with the clock losing its last 41 seconds, McMahon swung the ball out to Payton. The first-down markers were in Sweetness's sights. But there were Davis and Wilburn again. Wilburn drove the great back out of bounds a yard short of the first down. One gigantic yard was denied the man who rushed for more than 16,000 in his 13-year career.
"All my life, I've wanted to be on the same field with Walter Payton, with the legend," said the 24-year-old Davis. "Just to touch him used to be a dream of mine. But Barry and I had him. I hated for it to end like that for Walter, but I said, 'We've got to go on.' "