The 1985 NFL season is remembered for the historic defensive dominance of the Chicago Bears. Led by Defensive Player of the Year Mike Singletary, colorful coordinator Buddy Ryan and head coach Mike Ditka, the Bears rolled to a 15-1 regular season record and won the Super Bowl.
But there was much more to the world of the 1985 NFL and the links below, with game-by-game narrative of twelve notable teams bring to light all the great stories of this season. You’ll see the following…
*The process by which the Bears became “The 1985 Bears”, including devastating statement wins over contenders in the Redskins, Cowboys and 49ers.
*Chicago’s push for an undefeated season as it reached 11-0. A big Monday Night game awaited in Miami, and the Dolphins protected the legacy of their 1972 undefeated champions by ending the Bear bid for perfection.
*Miami was part of an excellent three-team race in the AFC East. New England and the New York Jets were both in the mix to the very end, and another big Monday Night game, a Dolphins-Patriots game in the regular season’s penultimate week was the difference. Miami won that battle, but New England later won the war and made a wild-card run to the AFC title.
*The Los Angeles Raiders and Denver Broncos had a great race for the AFC West title, and the Raiders won two head-to-head overtime games late in the year. Los Angeles was carried by MVP running back Marcus Allen. Denver finished 11-5, but missed the playoffs thanks to the Cleveland Browns winning a division title at 8-8.
*The NFC East was another good three-team affair, as the Cowboys, Giants and Redskins fought for the division into December and all three were in playoff contention until the final week. Dallas won a pair of dramatic games over New York and also swept Washington to win the division. The Redskins were the odd team out of the postseason.
*The San Francisco 49ers were the defending Super Bowl champs, but started 3-4. The Los Angeles Rams rolled to a 7-0 start. Then the 49ers made a late run and were ready to steal the division, before the Rams won yet another dramatic Monday Night game, this one in San Francisco. Los Angeles took the division and their great running back Eric Dickerson led them to the NFC Championship Game. The 49ers settled for a wild-card.
This blog compilation contains articles with the game-by-game narratives about all ten playoff teams, plus the notable misses in the Broncos and Redskins. Each article exists individually on TheSportsNotebook and has been edited for this compilation. Together, these twelve articles tell how the 1985 NFL season looked as it was unfolding, through the eyes of its best teams.
No one can say the NFL wasn’t warned. After Mike Ditka took over the Bears in 1982, the team quickly improved and by 1984 they reached the NFC Championship Game. It was time for the breakthrough and the 1985 Chicago Bears did just that, winning the Super Bowl with a defense that’s at the forefront of any conversation about the best D’s of all-time.
Chicago’s defense was anchored by middle linebacker Mike Singletary, a future Hall of Famer, who won the first of two Defensive Player of the Year honors. The defensive front had two 1st-team All-Pros in Steve McMichael and Richard Dent, the latter recording 17 sacks. Defensive end Dan Hampton was another Pro Bowl player and the team broke in hefty William “The Refrigerator Perry”, and he had five sacks from his defensive tackle spot.
Singletary was joined at linebacker by Pro Bowler Otis Wilson and his 10 ½ sacks. Wilber Marshall, an explosive player in his own right had six sacks. A future two-time NFL Coach of the Year, Ron Rivera was also a part of the linebacking corps.
The front seven is what is most remembered about this defense, for the relentless pressure brought by colorful defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. But the secondary was pretty good itself. Dave Duerson was a Pro Bowler at strong safety. Fan favorite Gary Fencik was the free safety and two more future head coaches, Leslie Frazier and Jeff Fisher were in the secondary.
It was a defense for the ages, one that not only did the basics of stopping opponents, but intimidated them with the constant pressure. But the offense of the ’85 Bears is often overlooked. The fact that this offense was the second-best in the league in points scored is one of those under-the-radar stats in NFL history.
A healthy Jim McMahon was the key. The quarterback started eleven games, which for him was a display of endurance. McMahon’s 57% completion rate and 7.6 yards-per-attempt were solid by the standards of the time and he made the Pro Bowl.
McMahon did it without great talent at wide receiver. Willie Gault had world-class sprinter’s speed and could stretch defenses, but was ultimately above-average, with 33 catches and 704 yards. Dennis McKinnon and tight end Emery Moorhead were functionable targets, but not game-changers.
That didn’t matter because one of the great game-changers of all-time was in the backfield. Walter Payton was 31-years-old but he was still going strong. Payton ran for over 1,500 yards behind a line led by 1st-team All-Pro tackle Jimbo Covert. Payton also led the team in receptions with 49. He was a first-team All-Pro and in spite of his individual accolades—a league MVP in 1977 and becoming the all-time rushing yards leader in 1984—Walter was desperate for a ring.
The defense didn’t look historically great in the opener. The opponent was the worst team in the league, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and quarterback Steve DeBerg threw three first-half touchdowns, while James Wilder rushed for 166 yards. The Bears were in a 28-17 halftime hole.
Frazier turned the tide in the third quarter with a 29-yard interception return for a touchdown and Chicago took over the second half in a 38-28 win. Payton ran for 120 yards and McMahon was 23/34 for 274 yards.
One week later the defense made its real debut. The New England Patriots had a strong running game that they would ultimately ride to the Super Bowl themselves, led by Craig James. Chicago held the Patriots to 27 rush yards. The Bears were up 20-0 late in the game and only a relatively fluky 90-yard touchdown pass to James on a swing pattern cost them a shutout.
Thursday Night Football was not the norm in 1985, so the Bears trip to the Twin Cities to play the Vikings was a special one. McMahon was having his first injury problems and did not start due to a kidney problem. But he would certainly finish.
The Bears did not play well offensively and were down 17-9 in the third quarter. McMahon was summoned in relief. He threw a 79-yard touchdown pass to Gault, and two more TD passes to McKinnon from 25 and 43 yards. McMahon’s eight completions went for 236 yards and he delivered a 33-24 win.
Chicago had eliminated the Washington Redskins in the divisional playoffs the year before. This Redskin team wouldn’t make the postseason, though they did finish the season 10-6. After spotting the ‘Skins a 10-zip lead, the Bears unleashed. Gault took a kickoff 99 yards to the house and the rout was on, 45-10.
A return visit to Tampa Bay was next (prior to 2002 the Buccaneers were in the old NFC Central with the four current teams of the NFC North). Chicago was again sloppy against a terrible team and this time it was the offense. They were down 12-3 at the half, but a 147-27 edge in rushing yardage eventually took over and the Bears won 27-19.
The big test was up next. They would travel to San Francisco, where they had lost the NFC Championship Game the prior year. This was not a great 49ers team—they would go 10-6 and make the playoffs, but weren’t dominant. And this game underscored the changing of the guard taking place.
Payton ran for an early touchdown, starting a day where he rushed for 132 yards. The Bears added three field goals in the second quarter and took a 16-0 lead. The defense was locked in—even though the 49ers’ own D got a Pick-6 and cut the lead to 16-10, Chicago calmly re-asserted control and won 26-10.
Chicago was now 6-0 and had dismantled both the 49ers and Redskins, who had combined to represent the NFC in the last three Super Bowls. Having established themselves as the team to beat in 1985, the Bears were ready to have some fun.
The mediocre Green Bay Packers came to Soldier Field for Monday Night Football. With the game tied 7-7 in the second quarter, the Bears were on the doorstep of taking the lead. Instead of giving the ball to Payton or fullback Matt Suhey, Ditka inserted Perry into the backfield. The big 340-pounder bowled into the end zone. The legend of “The Refrigerator” was born and Madison Avenue was at least as happy as Bears Nation.
The fact it was a sloppy game—nine combined turnovers—or that Payton had turned in another vintage performance, with 112 yards, or even that the Bears were still undefeated after the 23-7 win, all were dwarfed in news coverage by “The Fridge.”
Wilson led the way in a home win over Minnesota, intercepting two passes and returning one to the house. It was part of a five-interception day for the defense and combined with Payton’s 118 rush yards, produced an easy 27-0 win.
Chicago went to Green Bay for a quick rematch and the arch-rival Packers looked ready to pull the upset. The Bears trailed 10-7 in the fourth quarter. McMichael made a big play, with a sack for a safety that cut the lead to a point. Chicago was driving again, inside the 5-yard line. Enter The Fridge.
Ditka clearly enjoyed tormenting Green Bay with his new toy because with the money on the table, he slipped the Fridge out of the backfield. He was wide open in the end zone and though Perry hardly looked comfortable on the catch he made it and the Bears won 16-10.
A dominant rushing performance at home against Detroit, with both Payton and Suhey going for 100-plus produced a 24-3 win and gave Chicago a five-game lead in the NFC Central. The division race was basically over. The Bears had a two-game lead on the Los Angeles Rams for the top seed in the NFC, while the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants were each 7-3.
It set up another statement game opportunity in Dallas, a late afternoon kick for a national audience. And what a statement it was. Dent intercepted a pass on the goal-line for a quick touchdown. Defensive back Mike Richardson brought back another pick 36 yards for a score. It was 17-0 by the second quarter. Payton ran for 132 yards and the result was a 44-0 avalanche that put the Bears on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Another shutout highlighted by defensive touchdowns came with a 36-0 rout of lowly Atlanta. Fencik had a 22-yard interception return and Frazier brought one 32 yards to the house. The Falcons’ passing numbers were 3/17 for sixteen yards. They had fewer passing yards then pass attempts! Different era or not, this was mind-boggling and the Bears were 12-0.
The nation was abuzz for a Monday Night date in Miami. The Dolphinshad won the AFC title in 1984, would win a good AFC East again this season and had one of the top quarterbacks in football in Dan Marino. His quick release gave him a chance to solve “the 46” defense, the Ryan scheme.
Chicago was focused—although the focus was on creating a video, “The Super Bowl Shuffle” that would be released soon thereafter. Even though they sacked Marino six times, the fear of the quarterback’s big-play capacity were well-founded. He completed only 14 passes in 27 attempts but they went for 270 yards. Fuller threw two interceptions and the Bears dug a 31-10 halftime hole. McMahon came in, but there was no magic this time. They lost 38-24.
The legacy of the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only unbeaten team was safe, but the 1985 Chicago Bears would create their own legacy. “The Super Bowl Shuffle” might have been audacious, but it had good intentions—proceeds for Chicago’s needy—and it was tremendous fun. The combination of good intentions and good humor mean that someone in today’s NFL would undoubtedly quash it immediately.
Chicago was now on the hook with the video—Super Bowl or bust. They beat a subpar Indianapolis Colts team 17-10 thanks to the non-sexy, but effective approach of running the football and playing mistake-free.
McMahon’s 215 passing yards led the way for a win over the New York Jets on a Saturday afternoon in the Meadowlands. The Jets needed the win to stay in first place while the Bears had everything clinched, making the 19-6 dismantling all the more impressive. The Bears closed out their 15-1 season with a 37-17 win in Detroit, keyed by seven turnovers, a defensive touchdown from Rivera and a 94-yard kickoff return for Dennis Gentry.
It was time for the playoffs and the first opponent was a team cut in the same mold as the Bears. Bill Parcells was producing a terrific defense for the New York Giants, led by Lawrence Taylor. One year later this same Giant defense would put its own special imprint on NFL history with Super Bowl title run. But their time was still to come. The first Sunday afternoon in January belonged to the Bears.
The winds were blowing off Lake Michigan and in the first quarter the result was an almost unthinkable play. The Giants were punting deep in their own territory. Punter Sean Landeta received the snap at his own 5-yard line…and completely whiffed. The wind moved the ball in the air and poor Landeta went down swinging. Shawn Gayle recovered for the Bears and scored the gift touchdown.
That was the only score of the first half, but McMahon stepped up in the third quarter. He threw touchdown passes to McKinnon of 23 and 20 yards. It was part of a solid 11/21 for 216 yards and no interceptions day for McMahon.
Meanwhile, Payton was able to grind out 93 yards on 27 carries against the tough New York defense. And Chicago’s own D was in playoff form. The forced Phil Simms into an erratic 14/35 for 209 yards game and held shifty running back Joe Morris to 32 yards. The 21-0 score stood up and the Bears were back in the NFC Championship Game.
The best teams of the 1980s in the NFC were either the 49ers or the kings of the East, from the Cowboys to the Redskins to the Giants. 1985 was a different year and the Los Angeles Rams were the #2 seed, led by one of the great running backs of all-time in Eric Dickerson, fresh off an NFL-playoff record 248 yards in a win over Dallas. Chicago was still a 10 ½ point favorite, as the Rams lacked any passing threat to open things up for Dickerson.
Kickoff was early on Sunday afternoon, 12:30 PM ET (it was not until 2003 that the NFL began the practice of starting the earliest conference championship game at 3 PM ET). And the Bears were ready.
McMahon made a rare display of his legs, running 16 yards for a touchdown, and another drive ended with a Butler field goal. It was 10-0 and when the Rams showed poor clock management at the end of the first half and failed to get any points, the game might as well have been called.
The running games were a non-factor, ironic in that two all-time greats in Dickerson and Payton were ineffective. Chicago also held Los Angeles quarterback Dieter Brock to 10/31 for 66 yards. McMahon was the difference—16/25 for 164 yards in an efficient performance. He threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Gault for a 17-0 lead, and Marshall sealed the game in the fourth quarter with a 52-yard fumble return. Another shutout, this one 24-zip had the Bears in the Super Bowl for the first time.
New England made a Cinderella run through the AFC from the 5-seed, becoming the first team to win three straight road games to reach the Super Bowl. It was a bit of a letdown—a lot of fans had hoped the Raiders, with Marcus Allen would be the opponent. Even more wanted a Chicago-Miami rematch. But the Patriots took out these teams, the 1-2 seeds and Chicago was installed as a healthy 10-point favorite in New Orleans.
There was little pregame discussion of whether the Bears would actually lose the football game. There was more talk centered on whether they could spin a third straight postseason shutout. That went by the boards immediately when McMahon and Payton miscommunicated on a handoff and gave the Patriots an early turnover that resulted in a field goal.
But rather than this series giving hope for New England it almost seemed to underscore how hopeless their task was. The Chicago defense simply forced a quick three-and-out before the field goal and there was absolutely nothing to suggest the Patriots could move the football. And the Bears were about to get started.
Two long drives into the red zone resulted in field goals and a 6-3 lead. Late in the first quarter, Suhey ran from 11 yards out for a 13-3 cushion. Meanwhile, Patriot quarterback Tony Eason had a deer-in-the-headlights look and he would become the only Super Bowl starting QB to not complete a pass, being yanked for Steve Grogan after six incompletions. It didn’t matter.
McMahon scored on a two-yard run and Butler kicked another short field goal. It was 20-3 at the half and could have been worse if not for the turnover and the missed red-zone opportunities.
Another QB keeper from McMahon followed by defensive back Reggie Phillips scoring on a 28-yard Pick-6 removed any lingering doubt as to the outcome of this game. McMahon would finish the game 12/20 for 256 yards. Those are numbers that normally make a Super Bowl-winning quarterback the game MVP, but not on a day when the defense is making such a resounding closing statement.
Chicago’s D recorded seven sacks and forced six turnovers. They scored on both the Phillips interception and a fourth-quarter safety. Dent finished with a 1 ½ sacks and got the honor of game MVP. The final was 46-10.
The only downer was a decision that Ditka would later regret and it was to give the ball to the Fridge on the goal-line for a fourth quarter touchdown, rather than give the great Payton the chance to score a Super Bowl TD. It was a bad choice, and Payton wasn’t happy, but not having a one-yard TD run in a blowout Super Bowl is hardly a knock on a career. Especially not on a night when the Bears outrushed the Patriots 167-7, with a balanced Payton/Suhey tag-team.
The 1985 Chicago Bears earned their place in history. What would prove disappointing in retrospect is that this group never made it back to a Super Bowl. Ryan, so beloved by the defensive players that he was carried off the field along with Ditka, got the head coaching job in Philadelphia. The defense stayed great, but the team lost home playoff games each of the next three years.
But winning in the NFL is hard and there are no guarantees. The hopes of a dynasty might not have materialized, but 1985 was special enough in its own right
The year in 1985 sports was, top-to-bottom, a year that can make a case for the best sports year ever. You had compelling and memorable championships in four sports, a fifth championship that was keyed by an injury that would stand up as one of history’s most important. And even the one title run that was fairly predictable was part of an emerging dynastic run.
But in this great year, two sports separate themselves and that’s college basketball and major league baseball. The Big East turned in the greatest college basketball performance we’ve seen to date, taking three spots in the Final Four.
Then, after securing both places in Monday night’s championship game, the league gave the nation an NCAA final for the ages. Villanova shocked Georgetown 66-64, denying the Hoyas the chance to be the first repeat titlist of the post-Wooden era and making Rollie Massimino forever a legend in Philadelphia.
The 1985 baseball season produced exciting, winner-take-all races, in three of its four divisions. Pete Rose closed in on Ty Cobb and eventually passed him in September as baseball’s all-time hits leader. The League Championship Series battles were defined by comebacks.
Finally, the Kansas City Royals completed a year of comebacks when the rallied from a 3-1 deficit in games and being three outs from elimination, to beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Read more about the 1985 Final Four Read more about the 1985 MLB Season Read more about the 1985 Kansas City Royals
The NFL and the NBA might not have produced the same sort of gripping conclusions we saw in the Final Four and World Series. But both pro football and pro hoops, for different reasons, had champions that stand out in the annals of history.
It’s tough to imagine a team winning a title with more flair than the Chicago Bears. With a dominating defense, a colorful defensive coordinator in Buddy Ryan, a hip quarterback in Jim McMahon and a future TV personality in Mike Ditka himself on the sidelines, the Bears steamrolled to a 15-1 season and an even more overwhelming playoff run. So confident was this team, they even filmed a video “The Super Bowl Shuffle” in the middle of the regular season.
The Los Angeles Lakers had won championships in 1980 and 1982, but still felt there was something to prove. The franchise had never beaten the Boston Celtics in NBA Finals competition, and had suffered through a long offseason over a belief—including one held by the players and coaches themselves—that they gave away the 1984 NBA Finals to these same Celtics. So it was all the sweeter when the Lakers broke the Garden curse and won the 1985 NBA championship on the parquet floor. Read more about the 1985 Chicago Bears Read more about the 1985 Los Angeles Lakers
In the world of college football, the Oklahoma Sooners had ambitious plans for 1985. They were going to change from the wishbone to the pro-style offense and give the keys to sophomore quarterback Troy Aikman. When Aikman’s ankle was broken in an October loss to Miami, it looked like both team and quarterback were done.
But it turned out the injury was just what was necessary. In the short term, the Sooners went back to the wishbone, which they and the coaching staff was more familiar, never lost again and won the national championship. In the long term, Aikman transferred to UCLA, learned the pro-style attack from a coaching staff familiar with it and became a Hall of Fame quarterback in the NFL. He also won three Super Bowls—one of them for his old OU coach, Barry Switzer, when they were both with the Dallas Cowboys. Read more about the 1985 Oklahoma Sooners
The NHL didn’t give us a thrilling finish, or any other intriguing plot twists. What hockey did do was continue to put greatness right in front of everyone. As in “The Great One”, Wayne Gretzky himself. The Edmonton Oilers had broken through in 1984 and won Gretzky’s first championship, and now they went to work on building a dynasty, blasting through the postseason and winning a second straight Stanley Cup. Read more about the 1985 Edmonton Oilers