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THUMBS UP IN CHICAGO
Rick Telander
January 14, 1991
The Bears satisfied their fans by stifling the New Orleans Saints
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January 14, 1991

Thumbs Up In Chicago

The Bears satisfied their fans by stifling the New Orleans Saints

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There was ammunition everywhere; the only question was how the crowd at Soldier Field would use it. Snow was heaped under every seat, and if the Chicago Bears stank up the joint one more time—the way they had the week before in a 21-10 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs—the fans would bombard them with snowballs as surely as aldermen will stuff ballot boxes. The main target, of course, would be Bears quarterback Mike Tomczak, the sensitive, streaky' backup who had been filling in for injured starter Jim Harbaugh the last few weeks. Against K.C., Tomczak completed only 5 of 23 passes, and you would have thought Roseanne Barr had parachuted in and started singing.

But against the New Orleans Saints in this NFC wild-card game, Tomczak put together a nifty 5-of-6 passing display in the middle of the first half, highlighting it with an 18-yard scoring toss to tight end James Thornton, and Chicago went on to win 16-6. The crowd deemed the Bears' one-touchdown, three-field-goal performance acceptable and, sparing the home team, pelted the few gold-and-black-clad Saints fans who were huddled in the stands in brave, frozen clots. T-zak and the boys, now 12-5, may not have looked like Super Bowl material, but they looked a lot better than they had finishing the regular season with four losses in their last six games.

"We're kind of wobbling, hitting the walls on our way in," said Chicago coach Mike Ditka of his team's entrance to the playoffs. After the win over New Orleans, he said, "Now we've got to go on to bigger and better things," meaning the New York Giants this Sunday.

This, in case you need reminding, is the new, post-heart attack, stress-dispersing, contemplative Ditka, the low-key philosopher who seems to have charted a behavioral path midway between Buddha and Tom Landry. Mellow Mike shrugs a lot and talks about how certain things happen inevitably "in life." The effect of the make-over is a bit frightening for those who remember the old explosive model; it's a little like picnicking on the slope of a quiet but still-smoking volcano. The Bears, though, have responded to Ditka's new attitude, and their play against New Orleans could be seen as the resurgence of a good team that feels liberated by domestic harmony rather than shackled by the fear of making mistakes.

Or it's possible that the Saints are just darned hard to lose to. New Orleans lurched into the playoffs with an 8-8 record, needing the entire regular season to reach the dizzying heights of .500. In their 24-year history, the Saints had played in only one postseason game, a 44-10 loss to Minnesota in 1987. Normally rabid New Orleans fans were reluctant to invest too much of themselves in this second foray. WHO DAT FEVER SLOW TO RISE, noted the New Orleans Times-Picayune on its front page last Friday. On Sunday you could quickly understand why, as starting quarterback Steve Walsh, who wound up completing 6 of 16 passes for 74 yards with an interception, and his replacement, John Fourcade (5 of 18 for 79 yards with two interceptions), both threw poorly to mostly covered receivers, and the Saints netted a mere 193 total yards.

"Their offense is not sophisticated at all," said Chicago running back Neal Anderson before the game. Anderson, who rushed for 102 yards on 27 carries, made four catches for 42 yards and completed one pass for 22 yards, was a standout in the Bears' somewhat primitive cat-up-the-clock attack. His wobbly, lefthanded throw to wide receiver Ron Morris on Chicago's second play from scrimmage was released just before Anderson was obliterated by linebacker Rickey Jackson. For an instant it seemed the league's best all-around back might be done for the day. "Now I know what quarterbacks go through," a bruised Anderson said later.

What Walsh has gone through, since being acquired from Dallas after the third game of the season, is the process of trying to learn an offense while running it—and he has heard the boos just as Tomczak has. "They'll stop if you do well," says Walsh matter-of-factly. "I firmly believe that once I get a chance to sit down and watch all the film and understand the system, I'll have a lot better numbers than this year's."

For a while on Sunday it seemed that Tomczak might not have any numbers at all. He didn't throw a pass during Chicago's first drive, which started at the New Orleans 33 thanks to nickelback John Mangum's interception of a tipped pass. Stopped at the one, the Bears settled for a 19-yard field goal by Kevin Butler. On the next series, Tomczak threw only once, incomplete, before Chicago punted. Then came his flurry, producing the TD pass to Thornton and a 10-0 lead. Following the score, Tomczak, who would finish with 12 completions in 25 attempts for 166 yards with no interceptions, grinned, pumped his fists in the air, butted helmets with teammates and looked, basically, like a lost soul who had been saved.

The Saints' Morten Andersen kicked a 47-yard field goal to make the score 10-3 at halftime. Butler kicked a 22-yarder in the third quarter, and then he and Andersen swapped field goals in the fourth quarter. And that was it—the Bears had won their first playoff game in two years.

Most of the credit had to go to Chicago's defense, particularly Mangum, who broke up several key passes, and safety Shaun Gayle, who had six solo tackles, an assist, two passes defended and a 27-yard interception return. Added inspiration came from rickety and soon-to-be-pastured defensive tackle Dan Hampton, who knocked down a pass and made one early tackle in which he grabbed the ballcarrier in one hand and Saints guard Steve Trapilo in the other.

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