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Jim McMahon and the Bears put on their gloves Sunday for more than warmth. When they just as easily could have gone stiff in the zero-degree cold of Soldier Field, the Bears proved that they, too, can be 8-8.
Scoring twice in the final 4:34three times in the last 22 minutesthey overcame the Packers 23-21 on Bob Thomas' 22-yard field goal with 10 seconds left. McMahon threw two touchdown passes, ran for another score and set up Thomas' kick with a masterful two-minute drive that warmed what was left of the crowd of 35,807 (29,986 no-shows).
The Bears knocked Green Bay out of the playoffs and joined the clamor for anonymity in the National Five Hundred League, where it matters not whether you win or lose because everybody does.
But wait two minutes. This is a new fast finish. These 8-8 Bears may be third in the NFC Central Division, but they have won five of their last seven since coach Mike Ditka reinstated McMahon at quarterback.
Sure, Bear teams have won their final game seven of the last nine seasons. What's new? During that time, they have a December record of 20-7, yet have advanced to postseason play only twice. They have proved only that they win best when it means least.
Yet this end is different, they say. The players are different. The coach is different. The quarterback is different.
"There will be more changes," Ditka said.
One of them will be to stop changing quarterbacks like a mother changes diapers. McMahon salvaged his in-and-out season Sunday by picking apart the Packers in the final 2:58 as Green Bay quarterback Lynn Dickey had done to the Bears only moments before.
"We won a game in the final two minutes for the first time since the preseason," Ditka said. "We had trouble early in the season because of a couple decisions I made. It's a tribute to the way they turned the season around."
In an age of passing, it is more mandatory to move the ball than to stop it. The Bears scored first on McMahon's 35-yard pass to Willie Gault, but Dickey struck back with a 74-yard pass to Paul Coffman and a 31-yard touchdown toss to James Lofton. The Packers led 14-7 until McMahon threw a 22-yard strike to Dennis McKinnon with 6:35 left in the third quarter.
When the Bears needed to move the ball, they did, just as the Packers moved it two weeks ago, when they knocked the Bears from the playoffs.
"It is a different feeling to know we have the tools to come back and play a 2-minute offense like other teams," said safety Gary Fencik.
In the final three minutes, which will linger eight months in the Bears' memories, McMahon took charge. He called almost every play from the line of scrimmage. He didn't have to wait for Ditka's play messengers and substitutions. Nobody else even knew what he was doing when he ran three yards to the 4-yard line to set up Thomas' field goal.
"It was supposed to be a draw to Matt [Suhey], but I read a blitz and just took off," McMahon said.
"With McMahon, everything was under control," said center Jay Hilgenberg.
Walter Payton was on the sidelines with an injured hip for the final march. He had gained 148 yards on 30 carries as Ditka successfully kept the ball away from Dickey and his offense. The Bears failed to run two weeks ago, Ditka said, "because I didn't stay with it." Both of McMahon's TD throws came on first-down play-action passes set up by the run.
Dickey was sacked four times, twice by defensive tackle Steve McMichael in the final 18 minutes. He was intercepted four times, twice by cornerback Mike Richardson. The Packers lost three of seven fumbles. Dickey completed only 10 of 30 passes. Yet the Packers don't need much invitation to score. They went ahead 21-20 on Jan Stenerud's extra point after a 5-yard touchdown catch by Coffman.
It was up to McMahon. He had put the Bears in front 20-14 with 4:34 left on a 6-yard quarterback draw. When Hilgenberg's snap was wide on the extra point, holder Brian Baschnagel tried to run into the end zone and was tackled short of it.
It took Dickey only a minute and a half to retaliate. A couple long passes to Lofton and a run by Jessie Clark, subbing for injured Gerry Ellis, set up the Coffman TD with 3:06 to play.
The Bears have moved best in recent weeks with their 2-minute drill. They scored late before the half and at the end of the game against the Packers two weeks ago. They scored before the half last week in Minnesota. They seem to develop a rhythm they lack in their regular offense.
"Maybe it's because we don't practice it much," said guard Noah Jackson, who was calling line-blocking audibles.
"McMahon being cool back there helps it," Hilgenberg said.
"Everything was very positive, very confident and very excited," said tackle Keith Van Horne, who had to play after rookie Jimbo Covert tore cartilage in his right knee.
Dave Duerson's 22-yard kickoff return put the ball on the 38, and McMahon started working the flats. He completed five of six passes to Suhey and tight ends Emery Moorehead and Jay Saldi. He ran twice.
"The Packers didn't send anybody to the flats, which was a mistake," McMahon said. "Usually a defense takes away the short outside. I didn't know why they didn't. I was surprised. I think I called the same play in the left flat three times."
"They last half of the season, we started believing in ourselves, both offense and defense," Payton said. "We started making our own breaks."
"The offense took control when it had to," said defensive tackle Jim Osborne. "That's something that has been lacking over the years."
McMahon was wearing gloves, not so much to keep warm as to grip the ball.
"I should wear them all the time," he said. "That's the most spirals I've ever thrown."
Touchdown passes and spirals, too. Hope springs everywhere.