The Chicago Bears were one of the NFL’s consistently outstanding teams in the late 1980s under head coach Mike Ditka. But after winning the Super Bowl in 1985, they had suffered disappointing home playoff losses in the second round to the Washington Redskins. The 1988 Chicago Bears made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game, but another home playoff loss gave a great season a sour ending.
It was all about defense in the Windy City, and the Bears ranked first in the NFL in points allowed. They were led by middle linebacker Mike Singletary, a future Hall of Famer who won his second Defensive Player Of The Year award. Another Pro Bowler was strong safety Dave Duerson, whose subsequent death has made him a focal point in the modern NFL’s focus on concussions and player safety.
Singletary and Duerson were the only Pro Bowlers on defense, but that’s misleading. The core talent of the ’85 team, widely considered to be the best defense of the modern era, was still on hand. Across the defensive front was Steve McMichael, Dan Hampton and Richard Dent, who combined for 31 ½ sacks. The front seven drove the defensive greatness, but corner Vestee Jackson intercepted eight passes
Offensively, the Bears were mediocre, only ranking 18th in the league in scoring. What’s more, they had injury problems at quarterback due to the fragile nature of starter Jim McMahon. What the Bears could do was run the football. They had Pro Bowl talent up front, in left guard Mark Bortz and center Jay Hilgenberg, the best in the league at his position.
Neal Anderson ran behind this group for over 1,110 yards, and the steady running game worked in tandem with the defensive greatness to enable to Chicago to consistently control tempo.
The defense and running game quickly put themselves in display for the home fans against the Miami Dolphins. The Bears shut down Dan Marino and the Miami offense, Anderson rushed for 123 yards and two early touchdowns, and Chicago won 34-7.
Then they won a harder-fought game against the Indianapolis Colts, who had won the AFC East the prior year. The Bears held Colts’ quarterback Jack Trudeau to four completed passes and ground out a 17-13 win.
Chicago’s key rival in the NFC Central (the current teams of the NFC North plus Tampa Bay) was the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikes had reached the playoffs as a wild-card in 1987, then pulled two road upsets in the playoffs. Their postseason success contrasted sharply with the Bears and Minnesota was a trendy pick to make the next step in 1988.
Minnesota backed up the hype in Soldier Field. McMahon threw three interceptions, while Viking counterpart Tommy Kramer hooked up with receiver Anthony Carter to open the scoring and then to close a 31-7 rout.
The Bears bounced back by going to lowly Green Bay and dominating the trenches in both sides, beating the Packers 24-6. Then Chicago hosted the undefeated Buffalo Bills and made a big statement. McMahon played his best game of the year, going 20/27 for 260 yards. He hit Ron Morris for a 63-yard touchdown pass early in the game, and the defense held the Bills to zero rushing yards. The result was a 24-3 win.
McMahon missed the next game, a road trip to a bad Detroit Lions team. Mike Tomczak played in his stead, and led an efficient 24-7 win. McMahon returned the following week and led another quietly efficient win over a bad team, this time 17-7 against the Dallas Cowboys.
The Monday Night stage and the San Francisco 49ers were next, and the Chicago defense was ready for prime-time. They held Joe Montana to 13/29 for 168 yards. In a low-scoring game, the Bears played a clean game, committing just two penalties to the 49ers’ ten. Neither team scored in the second half and Chicago won 10-9.
A letdown happened the next week against a decent New England Patriots team on the road. Doug Flutie, once the backup for McMahon here in Chicago, had his revenge. He threw an 80-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, and with Tomczak again pressed into duty, the Bears had no offense. They also didn’t defend the run and lost 30-7.
It seemed like a visit from another bad division rival, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, provided little reason for excitement. But leading up to the game, Ditka suffered a mild heart attack and was hospitalized. He was allowed to return as a “consultant” for the game, and watched Tomczak throw for 269 yards in a 28-10 win.
Ditka returned to full-time coaching duty in the next week in Washington, where the defending Super Bowl champion Redskins had their backs to the wall. The Bears made life worse in the nation’s capital. They feasted on quarterback Mark Rypien for four interceptions. They held the potent Redskin ground attack to 28 yards. And they won the game easily, 34-14.
Anderson continued to churn out yardage in systematic dispatchings of Tampa Bay and Green Bay. The division title was coming into grasp, and the Bears had the opportunity to clinch prior to a season-ending Monday Night game in Minnesota.
Those efforts took a setback though, in another Monday Night game—this one a road loss to the Los Angeles Rams. Ditka tried Jim Harbaugh as a replacement for McMahon, but the Rams rolled to a 23-3 win.
Harbaugh, who would eventually become the Bears’ regular quarterback, got the call again for the injured McMahon in the penultimate game of the year at home with Detroit. A win here clinched for the Bears. It wasn’t pretty—Chicago trailed 12-10 in the fourth quarter—but the young quarterback got it done. Harbaugh completed 18/26 for 174 yards, made no mistakes and eventually, kicker Kevin Butler booted a field goal to win it. And then it turned out that Minnesota had inexplicably lost to Green Bay for the second time this season anyway.
The Bears not only had the NFC Central wrapped, but they were locked into the #1 seed for the NFC, so the season-ending 28-27 loss in Minnesota didn’t matter. The road to the Super Bowl went through Soldier Field in the NFC.
Buddy Ryan had been the defensive coordinator for the 1985 team, and had gone on to coach the Philadelphia Eagles. Three years later, Ryan’s Eagles were in the playoffs and they were fittingly on their way to Chicago for the NFC divisional round.
A wave of fog settled on Chicago, and watching the game on television was almost an impossibility. The game became known as the “Fog Bowl”. Tomczak got the start at quarterback, Ditka preferring a veteran in the playoffs. Tomczak threw a 64-yard touchdown pass to Dennis McKinnon, and the Bears built a 17-6 lead at the half.
Red-zone defense was the ultimate key to the game. The Eagles moved the ball, even in the fog, and Chicago surrendered 407 passing yards to Randall Cunningham. But three different times, the Bears clamped down in close and forced field goal attempts. It was the difference in a 20-12 win.
The victory was Chicago’s first playoff win since the Super Bowl of three years ago, but they needed one more if the vindication was to be complete. And it would be Montana and the 49ers coming back into town.
If fog was the story of the first playoff game, the wind and cold defined this NFC Championship Game. The winds whipped at 29mph off Lake Michigan. It was the 49ers who handled it. Montana threw two early touchdown passes to Jerry Rice, the Bears never got anything going, and the result was an ugly 28-3 loss.
The 1988 Chicago Bears were an excellent team, and the fact the 49ers not only won this year’s Super Bowl, but the following season as well, does lend perspective to the NFC Championship Game disaster that wasn’t necessarily available at the time.
But there’s always been a feeling that the Bears of Mike Ditka missed an opportunity in not winning—or least reaching—more than one Super Bowl. The shortcoming of 1988 was the apex of that disappointment, and Ditka never again advanced this far in the playoffs.