The Chicago Bears had been regrouping for two weeks, ever since their NFC Central rivals, the Minnesota Vikings, blew them out 31-7 on Sept. 18. After that defeat Chicago coach Mike Ditka said it was "almost a foregone conclusion" that the only way the Bears, who were 2-1, could make the playoffs would be as a wild-card team, and Ed Hughes, the offensive coordinator, ripped the offensive line. That's a no-no in coaching circles. You don't go after someone else's department, which in this case was Dick Stanfel's.
The next weekend Chicago beat the Green Bay Packers 24-6, but so what? And even that one had nasty overtones. Green Bay coach Lindy Infante called a couple of meaningless timeouts at the end, and Ditka responded by having his reserve quarterback, Mike Tomczak, throw a bomb, which sailed over the head of Packer cornerback Mark Lee, who yelled, "Do it again, Ditka!" At the end of the game, Infante waved at Ditka, who walked to the locker room without acknowledging him.
So the Bears were in a nasty mood as they prepared for Sunday's opponent, the 4-0 Buffalo Bills. Fueling their resolve were newspaper stories pointing out that despite Chicago's gaudy record the last two years—14-2 in 1986, 11-4 in '87—the Bears had gone 1-7 in their last eight nonstrike games against teams that finished with winning records, and 0-1 against the only winning team ( Minnesota) they had faced this year. The implication was that the Bears could beat up on dog teams, but tough teams beat up on them.
So here came the Bills, who caught the full weight of the Bears' wrath. Chicago versus Buffalo hardly qualified as a rivalry; the teams hadn't faced each other for nine years. That all changed on Sunday. The Bears came away with a convincing 24-3 win, but one play set the tone for future meetings. It established Chicago-Buffalo, at least in the minds of the Bills, as a "We'll get even, just wait" kind of rivalry.
The play came with 3� minutes remaining and Chicago running out the clock. On second and 12, quarterback Jim McMahon threw a 14-yard pass to rookie tight end James Thornton on a crossing pattern. Shane Conlan, Buffalo's talented second-year inside linebacker, was trailing the play. Flanker Dennis McKinnon peeled back and caught him from the blind side, driving his shoulder into Conlan's right leg. The block caught Conlan below the knee. He didn't get up. They took him away in a cart and put a splint on his leg. Word came up to the press box: X-rays for probable fractured fibula.
The block was within the rules, which are ambivalent about cut blocking. It's illegal for a wideout to crack back on sweeps, and for a player to cut block on kickoffs and punts. Ditto interceptions. But downfield on plays from scrimmage, cut blocking is O.K. 'That really makes sense, doesn't it?" said Buffalo linebacker Scott Radecic after the game. "We [defensive players] can't do it to them in the open field, but they [offensive players] can do it to us."
One of the unwritten rules of pro football is that when the issue is decided, you don't indulge in dangerous practices, like cut blocking in the open field. "It's the cheapest thing I've seen in five years of playing in the league," said Radecic.
"Did you try to get even?" someone asked him.
"They took him [McKinnon] out right after the play," Radecic said, "but there'll be another time."
"I don't know when we'll play them again," said Bills noseguard Fred Smerlas, "but when we do, you know who we'll all be going after."