The Chicago Bears' defense got the message: You're the best, and now, if ever, is the time to play like the best.
The message was delivered by a Washington Redskin team that had shoved the Bears around for three quarters and by the 55,431 fans in RFK Stadium who were trying to get their Skins into the end zone by sheer volume of noise. One more touchdown, just one more, that's all it would take, and then Washington would be through with this ugly, nasty bunch from Chicago, through with this vicious street fight of a game and into the NFC championship match against the 49ers. And possibly on its way to a third straight Super Bowl. But first there was this matter of the Bears to clear up.
Chicago held a 23-17 lead, soon to be cut to 23-19 by a deliberate safety, taken so Bear punter Dave Finzer would not have to kick from deep in his end zone. At the start of the fourth quarter, the Chicago defenders knew if they could keep the Skins out of the Bears' end zone for three, maybe four more possessions, Chicago would have its first postseason win since defeating the Giants for the 1963 NFL title.
The Bears' offense figured to be no help. It had put those 23 points on the board by a strange assortment of means, but now it was dying. Three plays and out. Nope, it would be up to the Chicago defense, No. 1 in the NFL against the rush, No. 2 against the pass and No. 1 overall, by a margin of almost 800 yards over Cleveland.
It would be an elemental struggle, the best defense vs. Joe Theismann, one of the game's best fourth-period quarterbacks. Hadn't Joe and the Skins pulled out their last two games, against Dallas and St. Louis, in the fourth quarter? The fourth quarter belongs to Washington.
On Sunday, all the Redskins got out of those final 15 minutes of play was three yards, net, on five possessions. The closest they came to scoring was Mark Moseley's 41-yard field goal try, which he pulled to the left. The score at the close of the period was still 23-19. It ended with a flurry of sacks and a rattled-looking Theismann and a very annoyed John Riggins, who was snorting on the sideline and pawing the turf and wondering why he had been dropped from the roster when it came down to the crunch.
Riggins had banged the ball over for his second one-yard TD of the day at the end of the third quarter to make it 23-17. He was to carry once more, a two-yard gain on the Skins' opening play of period four, and then it was curtains. Washington ended the game with 17 straight pass plays, the 24 yards gained washed by 23 yards lost in sacks. Four of the seven sacks of Theismann came in the fourth period, and there were lots more pressures and hurries and scaries.
Publicly, Riggins hardly addressed the issue, but privately he said, "I kept waiting for the call, waiting for them to give me the ball. You tell me what happened."
"I didn't have confidence in John at that point," Redskin coach Joe Gibbs said. "We were not gaining much with John earlier, and I felt our passing game was coming along."
Well, maybe there was something to that. Riggins had been big trouble for the Bears on the game's opening drive, picking up eight yards, five and five more on a shocking march against so formidable a defense, a drive that had lasted more than seven minutes and put three points on the board.