Bill Bates picks off Jim Harbaugh to secure a 17-13 victory.
Only two seasons removed from a 1-15 season, the Dallas Cowboys were now 11-5 and a volatile fifth seed in the 1991 NFC playoffs. They were riding a five-game winning streak, all behind the arm of backup quarterback Steve Beuerlein, into a bracket they hadn’t seen since 1985.
Speaking of 1985, the wildcard hosts, the fourth seed Chicago Bears, were looking to add another Lombardi to set beside their lone trophy won in Super Bowl XX. They were an angry team heading into the playoffs, for the San Francisco 49ers had systematically demolished them 52-14 in the season finale of Monday Night Football in Candlestick Park. Chicago quarterback Jim Harbaugh professed avenging that loss in the course of postseason play.
The Dallas Cowboys were just happy to be there. Third-year head coach Jimmy Johnson was too, but he was also driven to win this wildcard match. His formula was simple: defense, special teams, and zero giveaways. If the Dallas Cowboys could do that, he believed his team would win.
Soldier Field near Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago was fair on December 29th, 1991. The temperature was around 35 degrees, and the Windy City’s gusts sighed at only around 10 miles per hour. The Bears were favored by three points in this penultimate wildcard game of 1991 with Pat Summerall and John Madden calling the action for CBS Sports.
Chicago received the ball and advanced the ball to the Dallas 49. Cowboys safety Bill Bates, playing in only his third playoff game of his nine-year career, tackled Jim Harbaugh and jarred the ball loose. Tony Hill, the defensive end, fell on the ball. The Cowboys offense wasn’t able to advance it for a touchdown, settling instead for kicker Ken Willis’ 27-yard field goal to go up 3-0.
Maury Buford was a Mount Pleasant, Texas native who played college ball in the Panhandle at Texas Tech and was completing his fifth season as the Bears’ punter. As he let his foot boot the ball, 5th round pick Darrick Brownlow, a linebacker from Illinois, blocked Buford’s punt and downed the ball at the Chicago 10 yard line. This giveaway set up more Dallas points featuring Ken Willis. This time, he kicked the extra point after Emmitt Smith’s one-yard touchdown rush. After one quarter of play, Dallas led 10-0 in Soldier Field.
The Bears would have seven possessions in Dallas territory for the game, but the Dallas defense absolutely stifled the Bears. Chicago finally advanced the ball inside the Dallas 10 yard line and were in good position to score. However, facing 4th and goal from the Cowboys 2 yard line, sixth-year veteran runningback Neal Anderson couldn’t rush past the Cowboys defense; they smothered him at the line of scrimmage. Dallas took over on downs.
The next time Harbaugh led the Bears into the Dallas red zone, he threw an interception to rookier cornerback Larry Brown. The Dallas defense had aborted points from as little as 6 to as great as 14. The Bears were able to get 3 points just before the halftime break, but only because Dallas’ stingy defense foretold another fourth down attempt. Kevin Butler cut Dallas’ lead to seven points with a 19-yard field goal.
Coming out of halftime, the Bears were able to get some offensive momentum and confidence when Kevin Butler nailed a 43-yarder to make it 10-6 Cowboys. But this is when the Cowboys’ lethargic offense started to gain speed. Steve Beuerlein, the backup quarterback, drove Dallas 75 yards on a 14-play excursion that capped off with a three-yard touchdown pass to Plan B free agent tight end Jay Novacek. Dallas went into the fourth quarter ahead 17-6 against a quarterback who had three fourth quarter comebacks that season.
It took almost the entire final quarter for Chicago to score another point, which they did when receiver Tom Waddle, one of Madden’s favorite players that game, caught a six-yard touchdown pass from Harbaugh with over 2:40 left in the game. The Bears managed to retrieve the ball for another chance. It had to be a touchdown, or it was ann abrupt beginning to the 1992 off-season.
Chicago wasn’t able to get past their own 20 yard line. Dropping back from his own 15, Harbaugh threw another pick. This time, veteran safety Bill Bates snatched Harbaugh’s pass out of the cold, December skies at the Chicago 30 and returned it five yards. The once undrafted free agent secured victory. With 1:12 left in the game, the Cowboys could run out the clock en route to their first playoff win since the 1982 Super Bowl Tournament.
Sophomore sensation, runningback Emmitt Smith, became the first person in NFL history to record 100 yards rushing in Soldier Field. He also was the first runningback since Tony Dorsett in the 1982 Super Bowl Tournament against Tampa Bay to have over 100 yards rushing. The Dallas Cowboys were resetting the clock way back before 1985.
It was incomprehensible on a couple of levels that this happened to Mike Ditka. His Bears ran nearly twice as many plays, held the ball for 15 minutes extra, and gained 84 yards more. How did they lose? As was Jimmy Johnson’s philosophy: defense, special teams, and turnovers — this is where Chicago failed in ultimately Mike Ditka’s final playoff appearance as both Chicago’s head coach but also an NFL coach.
Jimmy Johnson reminded his players in the postgame locker room that this was the first step in a large pursuit, but they were pleased enough just to shock the critics and overachieve with a playoff victory, all without star quarterback Troy Aikman. The defense was really coming alive.
In 2013, the NFL’s top two winningest franchises in terms of total winning percentage won’t meet on December 29th, though the calendar would oblige. Instead, the 7-5 Cowboys go into Soldier Field to face a wounded 6-6 Bears squad. Like all wounded animals, Chicago is dangerous. Dallas must march confidently and perhaps borrow the philosophy of ex-coach Johnson: defense, special teams, and turnovers. This Monday night, America finds out if her team has equal or greater mettle as the ’91 Cowboys, coincidentally one of the franchise’s only teams to be 7-5.