Today, we are going to look back at the end of an era. As the glory years of the 80s rolled into the 90s, the Bears still had some gas left in the tank: core players like Richard Dent, Mike Singletary, and the Jay Hilgenberg-anchored offensive line continued to prove that a strong defense and hard-hitting run game could achieve great things on the football field. This football philosophy was put to the test on what ended up being a historic football game: it was Ditka's last playoff win, Dan Hampton's last home game, and set a record for most calls made by a referee without a working microphone! Join me below the fold as I attempt to read referee Jerry Seeman's lips and watch Neal Anderson, Steve McMichael, and Mike Tomczak put some fire into a frigid Soldier Field...January 6th, 1991: Wild Card Weekend. Jim Mora had led the Saints to a .500 season and snuck into the playoffs, but the Saints had yet to win a playoff game in their history. History was on the Bears' side,and so was the present judging by the Saints' shaky start . Starting out on their own 21, they opened up the game by featuring their running backs: first FB Craig Heyward ran the ball for three yards, then QB Steve Walsh swung the ball out to CFL convert Gill Fennerty for four more. On third and three, however, they decided to air it out rather than face the Bears' stifling defensive line. The pass deflected off of the receiver and bounced right into the hands of rookie nickel back John Mangum, who returned the ball nine yards to the Bears 30. The Bears, having led the league that season in interceptions with 31, added one more notch to their belts and set up their offense with great field position.
Now it was time for Mike Tomczak to try and shake his bad luck, after having been throughly booed by the hometown crowd for a horrible outing in the previous week's loss to Kansas City. Indeed, between Tomczak and the injured Jim Harbaugh, the Bears' pass game was dead last in the NFL. Their ground game, however, was second best in the league, and we see why on this first drive: rather than test out his arm on a windy Chicago day, Tomczak gave the ball to Neal Anderson for the first of 27 times on the day, this time good for three yards. Anderson, who was third in the league that season with 1,562 yards from scrimmage, wanted to show his versatility early. On second down, he took the handoff and swung out to the left, and with Saints closing in on him from all sides, threw an lame duck of a pass which floated its way down the field into the arms of a wide-open Ron Morris 22 yards down field. Ugly play, but it set up the Bears with a first and goal on the eight. It was now FB Brad Muster's turn, and he got the ball down to the three on two carries. Now third down, Tomczak went with his ace, but Anderson got cut down on the one by the Saints' rookie DB, Vince Buck. Butler put the chip shot in to make the score Bears 3, Saints 0, but the Saints showed they had the mettle to keep the Bears potent running game in check.
John Madden, master of the obvious, had already suggested that on a cold and windy Chicago day, special teams might be the difference in the game. We see just how right he was on the next two possessions. The Saints got the ball back at their 20, but could only squeeze out eight yards on three plays. With their air and ground games getting smothered tackling and rush of the Bears' front four, the Saints punted it away, but a bad bounce sent the ball on a collision course with Bears player Vestee Jackson's butt and then back into the Saints possession. They were able to complete one good pass to move the ball down to the Bears 34, but the Saints' offensive line couldn't get the push they needed to keep moving downfield. Two runs went for zero yards and one pass went in and out of the hands of Floyd Turner, setting up a fourth and ten. With the wind blowing directly into what would have been a 46 yard attempt by Morten Andersen, the Saints opted to go for it, but Richard Dent was able to get in the face of Steve Walsh and force him to throw it incomplete.
The Bears had the ball again but weren't done with making mistakes. A bizarre reverse play on first down ended up with the ball rolling sixteen yards the wrong way down the field, and while the Bears recovered, the shaky arm of Tomczak was not be enough to dig their way out of second and 26. The Saints also went three and out on the next possession, with Dan Hampton batting down a third down pass that was nearly scooped up by by Richard Dent. The Bears finally benefitted from a Saints miscue, as the Saints punt wobbled for a mere 25 yards and gave the Bears another short field. Starting out at their own 38, they looked to be doomed to another three and out until Tomczak hit Neal Anderson on a seam route for a 31 yard catch and run. The crowd, which had seemed restless, was now fired up. They got even more excited as Anderson took the next play for 11 yards behind a great block by Mark Bortz. The crowd was quieted again by an illegal formation call on the next second down, but Tomczak wasn't phased. On the next play, he flipped the ball out to James Thornton, who ran the ball down the side line eleven yards into pay dirt. Butler's extra point made the game Bears 10, Saints 0, and Mike Tomczak was getting cheers instead of boos, at least for now.
The Saints, having found no luck on the ground or in the short passing game, took a page from Ditka's and offensive coordinator Greg Landry's playbook. They took a deep shot down the seam to Eric Marten, who was a shoestring tackle away from a touchdown but still got 36 yards on the play. The Bears defense knew that they couldn't let the Saints back into the game, and LB Ron Rivera came up with a big run stop on Gill Fenerty to eventually set up a 37 yard attempt by Morten Andersen. The Soldier Field wind, however, had other ideas: the ball was pushed wide and the Bears took back over on their own 24. The Bears picked up 35 yards on a play action pass to Thornton, but the drive stalled when Tomczak was sacked by Renaldo Turnbull. With the Bears now facing into the wind, they went for it instead of giving Butler a 45 yard chance, but receiver Ron Morris took a step in the wrong direction after making the catch and comes up half a yard short.
Taking over, The Saints started out with another deep shot, but CB Donnell Woolford made a picture-perfect play on the ball and knocked it down just before receiver Brett Perriman could get his hands on it. Fenerty was able to find a hole big enough in the Bears front for eight yards, but Walsh is smothered in the pocket on third down and dumped the ball incomplete to save his skin. The Bears go nowhere on the next drive, which never got moving after a false start on first down, and Maury Buford's punt was almost blocked and only goes 19 yards, setting up the Saints with good field position and 3:30 left in the half. They got a quick first down by once again working the seam of the Bears' zone coverage, but the Bears shut down the Saints passing game for good when Steve McMichael and William Perry crushed Steve Walsh into the frozen grass, dislocating his shoulder and forcing backup QB John Fourcade to take the field. The rust showed on his first pass, a shovel to his RB which was almost intercepted by a charging Richard Dent. His next play, a QB option good for nine yards, earned Fourcade a slap on the rear from Ditka but no first down. It was enough to sets up a 47 yard field goal by Andersen, which finally put the Saints on the board. With a snowball fight between Saints and Bears fans breaking out at Soldier Field, Ditka is content to run out the last 1:30 of the clock and go into the second half with the score Bears 10, Saints 3.
When you have to play in Soldier Field in January, you make every yard count, which is why the Bears to this day place a premium on special teams. We see just what a difference ST can make in the second half, which started with Morten Andersen kicking the ball out of bounds to set up the Bears on the 35. It was all Neal Anderson on this drive, and he ran the ball for thirty yards on five carries. The drive stalls when Tomczak can't convert and third and six on the Saints' 32, and disaster struck on the field goal attempt: Butler was blocked and the ball was scooped up and returned for an easy Saints touchdown! The boos by the Soldier Field faithful quickly turn to cheers and Mike Seeman attempts to explain via hand gestures that the Saints had lined up offsides on the attempt, turning a six point swing against the Bears into a first and ten for the good guys on the Saints 23. Tomczak continued to miss his receivers, but Anderson and Muster are able to move the ball down to the 5 yard line to set up a much easier field goal for Butler. His chip shot put the Bears up 13 to 3, and the drive managed to eat up 9:31 of the clock, making the prospect of a Saints comeback that much more slim.
The Saints were down, but not out. Fourcade looked rusty after having spent ten minutes of game time watching his defense get run over, but he converts a third and one with a scramble and completion to Greg Scales for 31 yards, putting the Saints in scoring position. Ron Rivera kept Fourcade from converting the next third down with blanket coverage on his outlet tight end, which set up a long field goal attempt into the wind. Andersen looked to drive the ball low into the wind, but the Bear Trace Armstrong got his hands up and blocked the line drive kick. The Bears recovered the ball on their own 30 and once again looked to grind out yards and clock time with Neal Anderson and Brad Muster, who combined for 173 rushing yards on the day to go with their 63 receiving yards. The only thing that could stop the ground assault at first was a frozen chain on the first down marker, andTomczak finally broke a long string of incompletions with a timely pass to Wendell Davis after fumbling the snap and a fourth down conversion to Muster to put the Bears into Butler's field goal range. The Saints were finally able to slow up the Bears' ground assault on their own 19, which set up what should have been an easy field goal. Butler goes wide, however, leaving the Saints within striking distance and 10:31 left in the game.
The Saints kept working the one weakness they were able to find in the Bears defense, hitting John Tice (brother of Mike Tice) for 19 yards on their first play of the drive. Fourcade picked up some yardage himself on a sneak good for another first, and hit another over-the-top pass to move the Saints down to the Bears' 35. The Bears stiffen but gave away two first downs on pass interference calls, putting the Saints on the 2 yard line. The Bears don't give an inch from there, however: first Vestee Jackson drives RB Dalton Hilliard out of bounds for a loss of two, then the Bears force an incompletion by flushing Fourcade form the pocket. Fourcade, knowing his team needs six, scrambled on third down hoping beyond hope for a receiver to get open. Trace Armstrong had other ideas for Fourcade, though, and chased him around the field and eventually brought him down all the way back at the 20 yard line. Andersen was able to make the field goal, but with the score Bears 13, Saints 6 and only 5:52 left in the game, things were looking good for Ditka and company.
The Bears were able to run off two more minutes of clock and put three more on the board after Neal Anderson's run game and a few more Tomczak passes moved the Bears down to the Saints 11. It was once again a two score game and the Bears weren't taking any more chances: they squibbed the kickoff down field and set up the Saints on their own 39. Fourcade, however, had to take chances if his team was going to have a shot. Unfortunately, his chances didn't pay off: his first pass went straight into the arms of Shaun Gayle, who returned the pick 27 yards to set up one final Bears drive. The Bears ground it out, finally turning over the ball on downs with 1:35 left in the game and already having forced the Saints to use all their timeouts. While the Saints made a last-ditch effort to save some face, the crowd's wild cheers kept going as the Saints drive finally ended in futility at the sound of the gun. While the Bears would be outclassed by the Giants next week in a 31-3 rout, Ditka and his team showed the home crowd one last time just how powerful their formula of defense, special teams, and run game could be come playoff time.
As always, thanks for reading, and I'll see you back here next week to look back at how the Bears showed the world that they were who we thought they were.