On Sunday, the Chicago defense was on the field much too long—for 80 plays; by comparison, the Bears had only 63 offensive plays. What saved the Bears was a pair of sustained drives, a long kickoff return by wideout-running back Dennis Gentry and some spectacular plays by Hampton.
And give Chicago quarterback Mike Tomczak credit for getting the job done the hard way. Nothing came easy for the man who replaced Jim McMahon. The players have accepted McMahon's trade to San Diego. "Jim's a close friend, and I miss him," said center Jay Hilgenberg earlier in the week, "but all of us know this was the right decision for both him and the Bears."
The Chicago fans aren't convinced. They arrived for the game in a booing mood, and they didn't have long to wait. On the Bears' second play, Tomczak tried to hook up with halfback Neal Anderson, who was running a post pattern. But Tomczak mistimed his throw, and free safety Rickey Dixon intercepted it. Dixon went 28 yards to the Chicago 25 to set up the Bengals' first TD, a four-yard pass from Boomer Esiason to running back James Brooks. The fans let Tomczak hear their displeasure.
"I knew that pass was a mistake right away," said Tomczak. "I could hear Earle Bruce, my college coach from that great passing factory, Ohio State, saying what he must have said a million times: 'Never throw late over the middle.' But I knew it was going to be a long game. It was going to go the full 15 rounds."
Once upon a time such a mistake would have been the beginning of the end for Tomczak, who's now in his fifth year in the league. He would have looked toward the bench and seen McMahon, recovering from some injury or other, warming up. He would have come walking off the field having to face Ditka's icy glare, knowing damn well that one more screwup and that was it, the hook. Not now.
"I don't care if the fans boo or scream or holler," said Ditka after the win over Cincy. "Mike's my quarterback, and I'm pleased with his performance. He tried to make the plays; a few times he gambled and tried to push the ball downfield. Great quarterbacks take risks."
On the Bears' next possession, Tomczak took them 66 yards, down to the Cincinnati six, thanks to 37 yards' worth of passing and some solid running by Anderson, who would finish with a career-high 146 yards on 21 carries. Then Chicago did something strange. It gave the ball to Anderson three times and to Brad Muster—a 231-pound halfback who lines up in the fullback position—once. The Bengals stopped Chicago on the one. Matt Suhey, the best pure fullback on the team, was on the bench. Why? "For the life of me, I don't know," said Ditka. "I'll have to look into that."
In the waning moments of the first half, Tomczak directed an 80-yard touchdown march, scoring himself on an 11-yard quarterback draw. After pumping a fist in Dixon's direction, he went chest-to-chest with David Fulcher, Cincinnati's 234-pound strong safety, in the end zone. "He had said something about how he was coming after me," Tomczak would say later, "about how he was going to knock me out of the game—you know, the usual NFL type of camaraderie."
Following another interception by Dixon, the Bengals went ahead 14-7 in the third quarter on a 12-play, 66-yard drive. The final play was a five-yard run by Ickey Woods. Esiason hurt the Bears with short passes off bootlegs and play actions, all set up by that relentless ground game. Chicago had stayed in the game with a pass rush and blitzing scheme aimed at first-year center Paul Jetton. But in the second half, Cincinnati moved right guard Bruce Kozerski to center and put veteran Max Montoya, a late-reporting holdout, in Kozerski's spot. The change firmed up Cincy's front wall, and Esiason looked unbeatable on the TD drive.
Gentry's 63-yard return on the ensuing kickoff set up a Kevin Butler field goal and made the score 14-10. Back came the Bengals, who at this point might have put the game away had Hampton not decided it was time to show why he's a four-time Pro Bowler. Earlier he had sacked Esiason. He also had made a solo stop on Woods on fourth-and-inches from the Chicago 18. Now, with Cincinnati on the Bears 26, he beat left guard Bruce Reimers, the Bengals' best offensive lineman, on an outside move, hurdled Brooks and wrapped up Esiason for a 10-yard loss. It was a three-point sack, forcing a punt instead of giving Cincinnati a chance to try a field goal.