The Chicago Bears had spent the better part of the Super Bowl era being irrelevant, at least when the early 1980s dawned. Other than a playoff appearance and quick exit in 1977, the Bears had never even been on the national radar. The organization shook things up prior to the 1982 season by hiring one of its legends, Hall of Fame tight end Mike Ditka, to be the head coach.
Ditka went 3-6 in the strike-shortened year of 1982, but improved to 8-8 in 1983 and finished that year off with a win over the Green Bay Packers that kept the Bears’ archrivals out of the playoffs. The 1984 Chicago Bears were the team that took the next step, and put their franchise back into the postseason.
The defense had continually improved, as Ditka had retained defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan from the previous coaching staff. In 1984, they finished third in the NFL in points allowed. Mike Singletary, the middle linebacker who was a year away from being named Defensive Player of the Year, was the leader and a 1st-team All-Pro. Another linebacker, Otis Wilson, wasn’t a Pro Bowler, but his six sacks contributed to the pressure opposing quarterbacks felt.
When it came to pressure, few could bring it like the Chicago front four. Richard Dent was a Pro Bowler with 17.5 sacks. Dan Hampton was 1st-team All-Pro and had 11.5 sacks. Steve McMichael and Mike Hartenstine didn’t get to Honolulu, but combined to tack on seventeen more sacks.
Todd Bell was a Pro Bowl strong safety in the secondary, and future Minnesota Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier was on the corner. Another future NFL head coach played a key role—Jeff Fisher was the punt returner.
The offense was the sticking point. Walter Payton had been carrying the load in the Windy City in his entire career, and with over 1,600 yards in 1984 he was again a 1st-team All-Pro at age 30 and opened the season closing in on Jim Brown’s NFL career rushing record of 12,312 yards. He did it without the benefit a Pro Bowl offensive lineman or a passing game to open things up.
Jim McMahon was supposed to provide a semblance of a passing threat and when he was healthy, McMahon could do that. He completed 59% of his passes, but also only started nine games due to injuries. Chicago’s top pass catchers in terms of total receptions were Payton and fullback Matt Suhey. That’s not exactly stretching the field.
And the Bears had a fast receiver in track star Willie Gault, but the instability at quarterback led to Gault catching just 34 passes. Tight end Emery Moorhead caught 29 passes for just under 500 yards. The problems in the passing game were the reason the Bears only ranked 16th in the NFL in scoring.
Chicago opened the season at home against a poor Tampa Bay team and the defense set an immediate tone. They forced eight turnovers, two of them interceptions by aggressive free safety Gary Fencik, and they won 34-14. John Elway brought the Denver Broncos into town next. The Bears dominated a good team. Payton ran for a 72-yard touchdown and led the way to an astonishing 302-53 edge in rush yardage. McMahon found Gault on a 61-yard touchdown pass. It was 27-0 by halftime and that’s where it ended.
Ground game dominance continued at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, with Payton going for 110 yards and the team outrushing the Packers 180-32. Red zone problems kept it close though, and it took a 28-yard field from from Bob Thomas to get a 9-7 win.
The first loss came in humiliating fashion at Seattle. The Seahawks, a playoff team from last year and would be again this year, turned the tables on the Bears. It was Seattle who forced six turnovers and scored three touchdowns on defense. Chicago lost 38-9. They lost again at home to Dallas. McMahon was knocked out, the passing game went kaput, and a 283-59 edge in rush yardage was wasted in a 23-14 loss.
Payton was closing in on the all-time rushing mark and it made Bears-Saints on October 7 a must-see game, in a way you wouldn’t have said about these two teams until the 2006 NFC Championship Game. Payton carried 32 times for 154 yards and set the record early, with play being stopped. He was in the history books. Now he wanted to get to the playoffs and a 20-7 win helped.
The St. Louis Cardinals presented a potent passing attack and a team that stayed in contention for the playoffs until the season finale. Payton ran for 100 yards and McMahon returned to go 13/23 for 202 yards, as the Bears built a 21-17 lead in the third quarter. But in a rare display of defensive breakdown, they gave up three consecutive touchdowns and lost 38-21.
A return visit to Tampa Bay, then a division rival in the old NFC Central (the Bucs plus the NFC North’s four current teams) was just what the doctor ordered. The rush edge was 169-45, McMahon was 12/18 for 219 yards and three touchdowns and the Bears mauled the Buccaneers 44-9.
The defense was dominant again in a home win over a terrible Vikings team. Chicago didn’t allow a point until the fourth quarter and won 16-7. More surprising was thoroughly the defense dominated the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Raiders. Payton outrushed Marcus Allen 111-42, the Bears got five turnovers, grabbed an early 14-0 lead and coasted home, 17-6.
Detroit had won the division in 1983, but by the time they came to Chicago on November 18, the Lions were a broken team. Star running back Billy Sims had suffered a career-ending injury and Detroit was on its way to a 4-11-1 season. The Bears enjoyed their customary dominance of the trenches, although the Lions played tough. Chicago had to get two field goals from Thomas in the fourth quarter, one from 52 yards out, to escape 16-14.
The Bears were in complete command of what was a mediocre division that had no other serious playoff contenders. When the Packers lost in Detroit on Thanksgiving, it gave Chicago their first NFC Central crown of the Super Bowl era. The Bears celebrated by crushing Minnesota 34-3.
San Francisco was in command for the #1 seed in the NFC playoffs, but Chicago was still in the hunt with a myriad of NFC East teams for the 2-seed, led by two-time defending NFC champion Washington. But with McMahon down for the count, Chicago lost two straight winnable games against mediocre teams.
A 20-7 loss in San Diego came with Rusty Lisch at quarterback, who threw a Pick-6 in the fourth quarter when the Bears had crossed midfield. A 20-14 loss at home to Green Bay followed. Payton ran for 175 yards and even threw a touchdown pass, as he tried to carry the passing game too, but it wasn’t enough. By the time the season finale arrived, Chicago was locked into the #3 seed. The Bears closed the year by crushing Detroit, getting twelve sacks from a total of seven different players and the final was 30-13.
The playoff format of the time was three division champs and two wild-cards. The Bears got a week off and then traveled to Washington, where the Redskins had won a thrilling finale over the Cardinals to take the NFC East. Oddsmakers anticipated a 49ers-Redskins rematch in the conference championship Game. San Francisco had won on Saturday, and Chicago was a decisive nine-point underdog in the early Sunday afternoon time slot.
Steve Fuller got the call at quarterback, as Ditka looked for anybody who might be able to complete a pass. But Payton would still showcase his arm. With the score tied 3-3 in the second quarter, he tossed a 19-yard touchdown pass to tight end Pat Dunsmore. It was one of two passes that Payton attempted on the day and it gave Chicago a 10-3 lead going into halftime.
Of greater import was the work Payton was doing with his legs, rushing for 104 yards, while counterpart John Riggins mustered only 50 yards. And Fuller stepped and finally made the play everyone in Chicago was desperate for. On the second play of the third quarter, Fuller hit Gault on a 75-yard touchdown strike. The Bears missed the PAT, but their defense had been handed a 16-3 lead.
The Redskins didn’t go quietly—they cut the lead to 16-10, before Fuller answered with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Dennis McKinnon. Washington came right back and scored again. It was 23-17 going into the fourth quarter.
Fuller played efficiently, going 9/15 for 211 yards and no interceptions and the fourth quarter settled back into the kind of game Chicago excelled at. The defensive front turned loose and got seven sacks on the day. Three came from Dent and two came from Hampton. Chicago voluntarily took a safety with eight minutes left to avoid punting from the back of their end zone, but the defense made the 23-19 final stand up.
It was Chicago’s first NFC Championship Game trip and they were on their way to play 15-1 San Francisco. This was too much to handle. The 49ers’ defense, while not as hyped in NFL lore, as Chicago’s, was actually better in 1984. And that’s before you factor in San Francisco having Joe Montana at quarterback.
The Bears were a (+10) underdog and hung in for a half. A couple big defensive stops inside the 10-yard line kept the score 6-0 at intermission. But the offense was going nowhere. Even though Payton ran for 92 yards, Fuller was sacked nine times. San Francisco gradually pulled away, 23-0.
Chicago’s time was coming though. One year later they were the team going 15-1 and winning the Super Bowl. They made the postseason six times from 1984-90. And their defense would take its deserved place as one of the greatest of all-time.