The NFC Divisional playoff game on December 30, 1984 featured the Washington Redskins, a team known for offensive prowess that had won the NFC Championship the previous two years, and the NFL’s top-rated defensive team, the Chicago Bears.
The Bears had not won a playoff game since 1963 and had only two appearances in the interim, the last in 1979. Mike Ditka, who had been a player on that title-winning ‘63 team, was the third-year head coach and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan the architect of an aggressive unit that set a record with 72 sacks in ’84. The defense was especially strong on the line that was anchored by DT Dan Hampton and DE Richard Dent, the conference leader in sacks with 17.5, and at linebacker, where MLB Mike Singletary was a consensus first-team All-Pro.
The key to the offense, as he had been for virtually all of his ten years with the Bears, was RB Walter Payton (pictured above), who surpassed Jim Brown as the career rushing leader during the season but, at age 31, was still formidable (1684 rushing yards, 2052 yards from scrimmage). QB Jim McMahon had been sidelined by a variety of injuries and a lacerated kidney finished him for the year ten weeks into the season. Bob Avellini, Rusty Lisch, and Greg Landry, in addition to Steve Fuller, who was starting against Washington despite a shoulder separation, had all seen action behind center for the Bears. Chicago won the NFC Central with a 10-6 record.
Washington, coached by Joe Gibbs, topped the NFC East at 11-5 and, while not as potent as the record-setting 1983 team that was upset by the Raiders in the Super Bowl, was still strong. The Redskins had an outstanding offensive line, dubbed “the Hogs”, and 35-year-old RB John Riggins rushed for 1239 yards and 14 TDs behind it. QB Joe Theismann passed for 3391 yards and 24 touchdowns while WR Art Monk set a NFL record with 106 catches. The Redskins could play defense effectively, too, and had ranked second to the Bears with 66 sacks.
There were 55,431 fans in attendance at RFK Stadium, where the Redskins were 7-0 in the postseason, and they started the contest with a 56-yard drive that resulted in Mark Moseley kicking a 25-yard field goal. In the second quarter, the Bears benefited from a turnover when a hard-charging SS Todd Bell caused RB Joe Washington to fumble. That led to a 34-yard field goal by Bob Thomas to tie the score.
Later in the period, the Bears finally put together a sustained drive, moving from their 30 to the Washington 19 and helped along by a roughing-the-passer penalty on DE Charles Mann after Steve Fuller completed a pass to FB Calvin Thomas for 13 yards. At that point, the Bears pulled a trick play as Walter Payton took a pitchout and faked a handoff on an apparent reverse to WR Dennis McKinnon coming around toward him. But Payton kept the ball and, taking advantage of the opposing safeties playing up close to defend against the run, threw an option pass to a wide-open TE Pat Dunsmore in the end zone for a touchdown. Bob Thomas added the extra point and the Bears were ahead by 10-3 at halftime.
On the second play of the third quarter, Fuller (pictured at left) threw a short pass to WR Willie Gault that the fleet-footed receiver turned into a 75-yard TD. Thomas missed the extra point, but the Bears now were up by 16-3.
The Redskins scored a touchdown on a one-yard carry by RB John Riggins to narrow the margin to 16-10. Chicago responded with a series that was kept alive by a roughing-the-kicker penalty on a punt, called on Washington DB Ken Coffey. Fuller completed back-to-back passes to McKinnon, the second for a 16-yard TD, and Thomas added the PAT to again make it a 13-point game. Just before the end of the period, Riggins scored another touchdown and, with Moseley again adding the extra point, the Bears entered the fourth quarter with a six-point lead of 23-17.
The defensive nature of the contest intensified in the final period. Three times the Redskins took possession in Chicago territory and came up empty, starting at the 36, 40, and 45 yard lines. Twice they were pushed back by the Bears and forced to punt and the last series ended with Moseley missing a 41-yard field goal attempt. The Bears took an intentional safety when punter Dave Finzer ran out of the end zone because Coach Ditka didn’t want to take a chance on kicking out of his own end zone with just over eight minutes remaining, which provided the only points of the final period. Chicago thus prevailed by a score of 23-19.
The Redskins held the edge in total yards (336 to 310) and first downs (22 to 13) while Chicago was slightly in front in time of possession (30:24 to 29:36). Each team turned the ball over one time, but both teams blitzed heavily on defense and the Bears recorded seven sacks, to five by Washington, with most coming in the fourth quarter.
Walter Payton rushed for 104 yards on 24 carries and threw a touchdown pass. Steve Fuller only went to the air 15 times, with 9 completions, but they were good for 211 yards and two TDs, with no interceptions. Dennis McKinnon had four catches for 72 yards and a touchdown and Willie Gault gained 75 yards and scored on his lone reception. On defense, DE Richard Dent (pictured at right) had three sacks and DT Dan Hampton was right behind with two.
For the Redskins, Joe Theismann was successful on 22 of 42 throws while facing relentless pressure, for 292 yards and no touchdowns and was picked off once. He also ran the ball five times for 38 yards due to being flushed out of the pocket. Art Monk caught 10 passes for 122 yards, TE Clint Didier added 85 yards on his four receptions, and WR Calvin Muhammad contributed 5 catches for 62 yards. John Riggins was held to 50 yards on 21 rushing attempts that included the two short TDs. On defense, LB Rich Milot was credited with 3.5 sacks.
“This is one heck of a football team we shut down today,” said Coach Ditka of the Bears. “We played relentless football and when you play that relentless some good things have to happen to you.”
“It was kind of like being on the freeway at rush hour…without a car,” summed up Joe Theismann.
The Bears were shut down 23-0 by the 49ers in the NFC Championship game, but the stage was set to achieve greater things in 1985, a season that would culminate in a Super Bowl triumph. Washington dipped to 10-6 in ’85, missing the playoffs, but returned to the postseason in 1986.