Walter Payton Carries The 1977 Chicago Bears To A Long-Awaited Playoff Berth
The Chicago Bears won the NFL championship in 1963, but then drifted into obscurity. The Super Bowl era began three years later and from 1966-76, the Bears failed to qualify for the postseason. After going 4-10 in 1974, the team hired a new head coach in Jack Pardee. The record stayed 4-10 in ’75, but jumped to 7-7 a year later and the 1977 Chicago Bears made the next jump and got that elusive playoff berth.
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Chicago was led by running back Walter Payton, the dynamic 24-year old running back who rolled up 1,852 yards in what was still a 14-game schedule (the league went to 16 games in 1978). Payton won the MVP award as he carried an offense that ranked 13th in the NFL in points scored.
Bob Avellini was at quarterback, also 24-years-old and while he was erratic—18 interceptions—his 2,000-plus yards were pretty decent by the standards of the time. It wasn’t until a year later that the league tightened restrictions on defensive backs, so throwing the football still wasn’t easy in the world of 1977. James Scott was the top receiver, pulling in 50 catches for 809 yards.
The Bears had a young offensive line, with every starter between the ages of 23-26 and Pro Bowl corner Allan Ellis led the defense with six interceptions. Ellis was the only Pro Bowler on a unit that ranked 19th in points allowed, but both safeties—23-year-old Gary Fencik along with Doug Plank—each picked off four passes.
Pardee’s team opened the season with two mediocre opponents, a home game with the Detroit Lions and on the road against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Bears split those two games, and then a home date with the New Orleans Saints illustrated a problem that would bedevil the team all year long—poor performances against a bad teams. The Saints would only win three games in 1977, but their 42-24 thrashing of Chicago in Soldier Field was one of them.
Even more mystifying is that eight days after this embarrassment, Chicago played one of its best games for a national TV audience. They hosted the Los Angeles Rams, a consistent contender in the NFC throughout the 1970s on Monday Night Football, then the only prime-time game of the week in the NFL. Payton ran for 126 yards, the defense picked off Rams quarterback Pat Haden four times and Chicago won 24-23.
A tough loss at Minnesota followed. The Vikings were the pre-eminent power in the NFC Central (the current teams of the NFC North plus second-year franchise Tampa Bay) and had a 13-0 lead. Chicago, with Payton rushing for 122 yards, rallied to take a 16-13 lead. But Minnesota’s Chuck Foreman ran for 150, and the Vikings first tied the game with a field goal and then won in overtime.
The Bears beat Atlanta and shut out a bad Green Bay team to get their record to 4-3 and give the fan base some real hope. Just as quickly, they went on the road to play the Houston Oilers and turned in a performance that made the earlier game with New Orleans look Super Bowl-caliber by comparison.
We need to preface this by saying that even though the Oilers were a decent team, en route to 8-6, they did not yet have running back Earl Campbell, who dominated the league in the latter part of this decade. Campbell was still in his senior year at Texas, winning the Heisman Trophy.
It was Houston quarterback Dan Pastorini who authored a shocking 47-0 embarrassment. Avellini and backup quarterback Mike Phipps combined to throw for 26 yards—suffice it to say, even by the standards of the time, this was an embarrassment.
The season almost got away at home one week later against the Kansas City Chiefs, a team on their way to a 2-12 finish. The Chiefs led 27-21 in the fourth quarter, but Avellini bailed the Bears out when he hit tight end Greg Latta on a fourth-quarter touchdown pass and ensured Payton’s 192 rush yards didn’t go to waste.
With the record at 5-4, there was little margin of error at a time when the playoffs only consisted of four teams—there was one wild-card slot available in a three-divisional conference structure. Minnesota came to town on November 20.
Payton likely won the MVP award on this day. His number was called 40 times, and running against a good defensive unit, Payton produced 275 yards on the ground. The defense played its own best game of the year and the Vikings got their only points when a blocked punt was taken in for a touchdown. Chicago won 10-7 and kept their hopes—for both the Central title and the wild-card spot—alive.
Thanksgiving Day in Detroit is never easy for a visiting team. Chicago fell behind early, but then Avellini led an avalanche in the second half. The quarterback finished 14/21 for 260 yards with two touchdown passes. The Bears won 31-14 and now had some momentum and ten days to rest up for the final push.
The oddities of the schedule meant Chicago only played Tampa Bay one time, and it wouldn’t have been the Bears if this game against a lousy team wasn’t a little uncomfortable. Chicago did survive 10-0, holding Buccaneer quarterback Randy Hedberg to 21 passing yards. A week later, the Bears beat the Packers 21-10. And when the Vikes lost to the Oakland Raiders, the NFC Central was a dead heat at 8-5.
With one game to go, the Bears were in a three-way fight, with the Washington Redskins also at 8-5. Chicago needed Minnesota to lose if they were to claim the NFC Central. But the Bears controlled their destiny over the Redskins for the wild-card spot.
Chicago was playing on the road against the New York Giants for the season finale. The Giants were a bad team at this time, although by this point, everyone in the Windy City knew not to take that seriously. The Saturday of Week 14 saw Minnesota and Washington each play on Saturday. Both teams won, so the Bears knew the stakes when they took the field—they were playing for the wild-card and it was win or go home.
The sleet pounded the Meadowlands and the Giants’ runners—Larry Csonka and Doug Kotar—handled it better than Payton. New York got 253 yards on the ground, while Payton was held to 47 yards. But neither team could get in the end zone. It was a field goal war and it went to overtime tied 9-9. Finally, the Bears got in position for Bob Thomas to try a game-winner and he connected. At long last, the Bears were going to the postseason.
Chicago’s reward for their effort was a trip to face the Dallas Cowboys, the #1 seed who had dominated defensively all year long. Minnesota upset the Los Angeles in the other NFC divisional playoff game, so the Bears took the field knowing they could create an all-NFC Central championship game in the Twin Cities. But the Cowboys were too good. Tony Dorsett and Robert Newhouse piled up the rush yards, Payton was held to 60 yards and Dallas cruised to a 37-7 win.
Pardee’s team had every reason to hang their head high though. Dallas turned the entire playoffs into a demolition, so Chicago had plenty of company. And after eleven years of irrelevance in the Super Bowl era, Chicago had gotten its biggest victory by finally making the postseason party.