But now McMahon is back, enjoying the greatest season a Bear quarterback has had since the days of Sid Luckman, and Chicago is a point machine. The Bears are 6-0 and have a three-game lead in the NFC's Central Division. They're the highest-scoring team in football, averaging 31.5 points a game. Their points have come in mad flurries that have had Ditka rubbing his eyes.
Minnesota game. Vikings leading 17-9 in the third quarter. McMahon's on the sidelines with a sore neck and back, pleading with Ditka to let him in. In he comes and the first two passes he throws are TDs. The next series ends with another one. In a little under seven minutes Chicago is up 30-17—and it's over.
Washington game. In 10 minutes the Bears score four TDs, McMahon throwing for two and catching a Payton pass for a third, and a 10-0 deficit becomes a 28-10 lead.
Ditka played on some pretty sturdy Bear teams in the six years that he was their tight end in the 1960s, but he never saw one that could score this quickly. The night before the 49er game he tried to put it into perspective.
"We're going to be a complete reflection of our quarterback," he said. "In the second half against Minnesota he was a magician. You can't throw the ball any better than he did. Our fortunes are going to run parallel with McMahon's."
Sounds goofy, doesn't it? I mean, these are the Bears. When's the last time they built their offense around a quarterback? They haven't had one in the Pro Bowl since Billy Wade in '64. McMahon's so special that Ditka got away with keeping his two leading receivers out of the 49er game: wideout Dennis McKinnon, who had caught at least one TD pass in each contest, and tight end Emery Moorhead. They were nursing leg and knee injuries, respectively, though Ditka admitted that they would have played if it had been a championship game. But wasn't this a special kind of contest, a repeat of last season's NFC title match, possibly a preview of this season's?
"I've got to be realistic," Ditka said. "After the 49ers we go into four straight Central Division games, and I've got to have them ready. Besides, the pressure's not on us, it's on the 49ers. If they lose, they're 3-3, and they could be three games behind the Rams."
Perhaps that's the scariest thing of all about this Chicago team. The Bears came into the contest loose. Sure, it's nice to beat the Niners on their own turf, to get even for last season, but you have to look at the big picture.
"The game's kind of a litmus test for us," said free safety Gary Fencik. "People look at us and say, O.K., who have they beaten? Tampa Bay twice, New England, Washington? The Redskins game was supposed to be a big one, but then we blew them away 45-10, and everyone talked about the problems they were having."
Forty-Niner tackle Keith Fahnhorst saw some humor in the buildup for Sunday's game: "It was almost comical, the way each coach was saying how wonderful the other team was, how they feared for their lives. It was like professional wrestling in reverse."