For eight seasons, Mike Ditka produced the best run of football Chicago has seen during the Super Bowl era. It started with a division title in 1984, continued on through five more division crowns and a memorable run to a Super Bowl championship in 1985. The 1991 Chicago Bears were the last of that era, Ditka’s final playoff team in the Windy City.
Success for the Bears in this era started on the defensive side of the football and that started with their great leader, Mike Singletary. The 33-year-old middle linebacker was 1st-team All-Pro in 1991. He was joined by a young pass-rushing linebacker in John Roper, who got eight sacks .
Up front, Chicago was still led by holdovers from the ‘85 championship team, including defensive tackle Steve McMichael and defensive end Richard Dent, who combined for almost twenty sacks. The Bears ranked ninth in the NFL in points allowed.
A feisty young quarterback named Jim Harbaugh was behind center. Whatever you think of the love-him-or-hate-him persona he’s since developed as a head coach, there’s no disputing he was mediocre quarterback—at best. Jimmy H ranked in the lower half of the league in completion percentage, yards-per-attempt and interception percentage. That was in spite of having two pretty decent receivers, in deep threat Wendell Davis and Tom Waddle, who worked secondaries underneath.
Chicago also got a Pro Bowl year from running back Neal Anderson, even though he missed three games. Brad Muster missed five games, but was a capable backup when available. Both players could catch passes out of the backfield and the offensive line was anchored by seven-time Pro Bowl center Jay Hilgenberg, who was still going strong. But the subpar play at quarterback left the Bears ranking 14th in a 28-team league for points scored.
The season opened with a late afternoon kick against the Minnesota Vikings. Bears defensive back Markus Paul picked off two passes to key a 10–6 win for the home crowd. Chicago then went to lowly Tampa Bay. They turned the ball over four times, but the defense made up for it with eight sacks, the majority coming from Roper, Dent and McMichael in a 21-20 escape.
Chicago’s offense again bogged down at home against the New York Giants, who had won the Super Bowl in 1990, but would struggle and miss the playoffs this year with Bill Parcells in retirement. After taking a 13-0 lead, the Bears gave up 17 straight points. Anderson had only rushed for 15 yards. But the running back broke through in the fourth quarter, with a 42-yard touchdown jaunt to win it.
Another visit from a New York team came when the Jets arrived for Monday Night Football. This time it was Harbaugh’s turn to deliver. He threw for 303 yards, with Davis and Waddell combining to catch seventeen passes in a 19-13 overtime win. Chicago was 4-0 and riding high, but two red-hot teams were ahead on the schedule, in the Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins.
The Bills & Redskins would end up meeting in this year’s Super Bowl and while the Bears hung in better than most teams would, they lacked the firepower to win games like these. They only trailed 7-6 at the half in Buffalo, but the failure to run the ball meant that the dam eventually broke against the Bills’ potent offense in a 35-20 loss. Chicago would outplay Washington at home, but three Harbaugh interceptions were their doom in a 20-7 defeat.
A Thursday Night game at lowly Green Bay came following a bye week, and with the winds gusting at 20mph in Lambeau Field, the Bears won 10-zip. Ten days later came the best win of the year, an important road game at New Orleans, who was another division leader in the NFC. Even though Harbaugh was putrid—5/22 for 61 yards, Chicago won the rushing battle 142-51 and pulled out a 20-17 win.
Detroit had emerged as the principal challenger for this year’s NFC Central race (the four current teams of the NFC North, plus Tampa Bay). The Lions came into Soldier Field and led 10-6 in the third quarter, before Harbaugh opened up. He threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Davis for the lead and an eight-yard strike to Davis to seal the 20-10 win. Chicago kept rolling through divisional opponents with a 34-17 win at Minnesota, keyed by 178 rush yards and a strong fourth quarter that blew open a close game.
Anderson was missing the following week in Indianapolis, but the Colts were horrible and Muster picked up the slack with 101 rush yards. Harbaugh went 18/32 for 287 yards and tossed a pair of touchdowns in the third quarter of a 31-17 win.
Chicago was riding high at 9-2 and well on pace to win another division title and secure a first-round bye in the playoffs. Until the final two games of November. The Bears blew a 13-3 lead in the third quarter against Dan Marino’s Miami Dolphins and lost in overtime, 16-13. More damaging was a Thanksgiving Day visit to Detroit. Harbaugh threw four interceptions in a 16-6 loss.
The Bears & Lions were now each 9-4. Chicago held the tiebreaker thanks to a better divisional record—and they also had the tiebreaker on the 9-4 Saints in the race for the 2-seed, but any room for error was now gone.
Visits from two bad divisional rivals were just what they doctor ordered. Harbaugh went 16/25 for 209 yards and two touchdowns in an easy 27-13 win over Green Bay. The running game rolled the following Saturday afternoon over Tampa, piling up 182 rush yards in a 27-0 win. Chicago just needed one more win to lock up a week off in the playoffs and then a home game in the divisional round.
The finale would be on Monday Night in San Francisco, where the 49ers were going to miss the playoffs, but were also a hot team coming down the stretch after an injury-riddled year. The Bears hoped to get some help on Sunday with Detroit visiting Buffalo. But the Bills were resting a number of starters, having already clinched homefield advantage and the Lions won in overtime.
It turned out the beginning of the end of the Ditka era began right here. Chicago wasn’t respected, even in a must-win spot, and were a five-point underdog to the 49ers. It turned out that was generous. The Bears trailed 24-zip by halftime and lost 52-14.
In the following Sunday’s wild-card round, they hosted a rising force in Jimmy Johnson’s Dallas Cowboys. Chicago was able to hold on to the ball for long drives, ending up with over 37 minutes of possession time. But they made every big mistake. Two drives to the doorstep of the goal-line resulted in only three points. They had a punt blocked. Harbaugh threw a couple interceptions, while the young Cowboys made no mistakes. The Bear season ended with a 17-13 loss.
It wasn’t apparent at the time that the era was over. Chicago still started the 1992 season with four wins in the first seven games and were in the playoff conversation. But they collapsed and lost eight of their last nine. Ditka and the organization parted ways after the ‘92 campaign. The Bears have had some good teams since then, notably making a Super Bowl trip in 2006 under Lovie Smith. But the franchise has never approached the sustained success of the Ditka Era that came to an end in 1991.