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It's 4th and long gone for Bears
There are desperate times, in life, when we all have to decide whether to go for it on fourth down.
Bears partisans must grant coach/philosopher Mike Ditka the strength of that conviction.
However, as the underdog Bears attempted to extend their playoff lives Sunday against the New York Giants, the visitors' lack of adequate execution fell short of their coach's courage to risk the consequences.
Converting only 1 of 5 fourth-down plays and 3 of 11 third-down situations, the Bears experienced sudden expulsion from the National Football League playoffs with a humbling 31-3 defeat in front of 77,025 fans at Giants Stadium.
The NFC East champion Giants (14-3) earned the right for a rematch with the San Francisco 49ers (15-2) in the NFC championship game next Sunday at Candlestick Park. That winner advances to the Super Bowl Jan. 27 in Tampa to meet the winner of the Buffalo Bills-Los Angeles Raiders AFC title game.
"I'm proud of the guys. The game we had isn't going to take any of the luster off the season we had," said Ditka, who led the club's resurrection from a 6-10 non-playoff disappointment in 1989 to another NFC Central Division crown.
"The only disappointment I have is that we have a lot of cynics and critics in life who will point the finger. But I think you have to look at what this team accomplished and where it came from.
"It didn't end the way I wanted it to and I didn't believe it would end this way. Either you are good enough or you are not good enough. Today, we are certainly not good enough and they were."
Ditka said he and Bears President Michael McCaskey had begun talks regarding a new contract, so it appears he will be back in 1991.
"I would hope so," said Ditka. "I don't make those final decisions. But it seems that we both have said that he wants me back and I want to be back. So I hope that works out."
Most of the Giants' clutch plays worked out just fine. Behind backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler (10 of 17 for 112 yards and two TDs), they were 4 for 4 on fourth down and 6 of 14 on third down.
The game seemed to turn decidedly in the Giants' favor when the Bears failed on a fourth-and-goal from the 1 early in the second quarter, trailing 10-0 at the time.
Fullback Brad Muster was stopped for a 1-yard loss on a dive play over left tackle Jim Covert. Giants defensive lineman John Washington made the stop in the backfield.
"We just had a guy beat," Ditka said. "One guy got beat, that's all. With (Muster's) momentum, he would have gotten it in, but not when he is hit in the backfield.
"Everybody is going to say: 'Why didn't you kick the field goal?' Well, it would have been 31-6. What are you going to do? That would have been a chance to put some pressure on them. If I had it to do all over again, I would have done the same thing."
Ditka earlier had decided against attempting a tying field goal when the Bears trailed 3-0 on a 46-yard field goal by Matt Bahr. With fourth-and-12 at the Giants 27, Ditka apparently thought the 13-m.p.h. wind was too stiff for Kevin Butler to attempt a 44-yarder. A Mike Tomczak pass to Neal Anderson netted only three yards and the Bears turned the ball over at the 25.
While the team's quarterbacks had similar non-spectacular statistics, Hostetler made the clutch plays, including six scrambles for 43 yards.
Tomczak was 17 of 36 for 205 yards. He was intercepted twice, including one by Mark Collins after his catchable pass to Dennis Gentry bounced off his chest and into Collins' hands.
"We came out and threw a very simple pass on the second drive," said Ditka. "It's a completion for six yards or it's an interception for them. It was a good throw.
"Mike is going to bear the brunt of this and he shouldn't, because he played pretty darn good. When you don't win, you don't win. Most likely they will blame the coach or the quarterback.
"We had a lot of balls dropped early, but when the wind is blowing, it makes it even harder. But you have to give the other team credit and I give them all the credit in the world."
The Giants grounded out 194 yards rushing, with Ottis Anderson picking up 80 yards on 21 carries.
"There is not much dignity in a loss like this," said Bears defensive end Trace Armstrong. "I think the important thing for us to remember right now is that we had an awfully good year. Nobody expected us to become the type of team we became this year."
The Bears' Anderson wound up with a season-low 19 yards on 12 attempts, and Muster picked up eight yards on four tries.
Giants coach Bill Parcells unveiled a four-man defensive front and used it most of the game to cause the Bears problems with their blocking assignments.
"We practiced against the four-man line, but a little different variation from what they played," said Ditka. "They played a basic 4-3. We practiced against a four-man line figuring they would use a 4-2 on second down more. That didn't surprise us at all, but the 4-3 kind of surprised us on first down. They really took the running game away."
Parcells also kept the Bears defense off balance by often calling passing plays on first down. The Giants had 23 first downs to the Bears' 11.
Asked about the Bears' apparent lack of deception, particularly on first down, Ditka responded:
"What are you going to do? Change everything? We started with the ball from our own 20 (on their opening drive). You aren't going to depart totally (from your strength). You have to believe that the way you got here meant something."
Hostetler, a seven-year veteran from West Virginia, made only his fifth NFL start and first playoff appearance as starter Phil Simms (foot) remained on the injury list until next weekend.
"The main thing was his ability to run with the football," Ditka said. "I don't know that anybody else they have could have done that today.
"He made key plays himself to keep drives going."
The Giants took their 10-0 lead on a 21-yard pass from Hostetler to Stephen Baker, who beat cornerback Vestee Jackson with 1:04 left in the first period.
After a Sean Landeta punt went only 29 yards against the wind, the Bears took advantage of the field position to move in for a 33-yard field goal by Butler.
An 80-yard Giants drive on which Anderson carried seven times (six in a row) ended with a 5-yard pass to tight end Howard Cross and a 17-3 lead with 33 seconds left in the half.
A 3-yard Hostetler TD run early in the third quarter capped a 49-yard drive to put the Giants on top 24-3. And Maurice Carthon bulled over from a yard out for the 31-3 final.
"When you let a team like the Giants get up on you, they're going to go to their bread and butter," Ditka said. "And their bread and butter all year is Anderson and the running game. If we had taken that away from them and made them pass, it might have helped. But we didn't."