CHICAGO — When the Bears and Rams sent out their armies of captains for the coin flip just before the kickoff Sunday, the Rams won and decided to receive.
The Bears chose to defend the north goal.
This meant that as operations began in the Windy City, the Rams would be marching into the wind.
The game ended almost immediately afterward.
Two short Ram punts, held up by the wind, carried only 33 and 28 yards, respectively. The Bears replied with two short scoring marches, respectively. And in 10 minutes the Rams were down, 10-0.
They weren't heard from again. Never at any time did their quarterback, Dieter Brock, look like a passer who could overcome 10-0. Or even 2-0.
It was, nonetheless, a day on which the Bears were a little lucky:
--When they fumbled during their decisive first touchdown drive, they also recovered.
--Among other things, the Rams beat themselves at the end of the half, grossly mishandling their two-minute drill.
--And, finally, down in South Florida, the New England Patriots upset the Miami Dolphins to make it a Bear-Patriot Super Bowl on Jan. 26.
Against Miami in that game, the Bears would have had some trouble with the only team that has outscored them this season.
The Dolphins know how to attack the Bear defense.
Moreover, the Dolphins represented the AFC a year ago in the fierce pressure of the Super Bowl. They know exactly what it's like there.
Bear mistakes in that tension--which they'll be experiencing two weeks hence for the first time--probably would have beaten them if the party of the other part had been Miami.
But with New England in the Super Bowl, the pressure will be equally distributed among all the participants. Both are first-time Super Bowl contestants.
Both teams have the talent to win, no doubt, but talent isn't likely to decide this one. The players making the first big mistake or two in the noise and confusion of the Superdome--and falling behind--can expect to lose.
Thus Super Bowl XX figures as a tossup. Who can predict big mistakes? Item:
The Dolphins, normally the steadiest of football machines, led all four teams in mistakes Sunday.
In the Orange Bowl, though, the Dolphins were basically losing to the law of averages. They had won 18 straight from New England in that stadium. The end of the jinx was overdue.
No jinx troubled the Rams here. They were defeated by their own ineptitude, mainly, and second by Bear cleverness.
First about the clever Bears.
When the Rams gave them the ball in the first quarter, they came out throwing. The Rams had tried to run Eric Dickerson. The Bears, by contrast, attacked with first-down passes.
On Chicago's opening scrimmage play, quarterback Jim McMahon took a leisurely deep drop, waited for the backs in the Ram zone defense to chase his wide receivers up the field, then threw a short pass over the line to a tight end, Emery Moorehead, who gained 20 yards through areas the Rams had vacated.
That made it first down again, and again McMahon passed, hitting wide receiver Willie Gault. Against zone defenses, a hook pass is a high-percentage first-down play, and that's the pattern Gault ran. Nineteen yards more.
McMahon wasn't heavily rushed on either throw. Because they were first-down plays, the Rams' designated hit man, Gary Jeter, wasn't even on the field. Instead of harrying McMahon, the Ram defense was playing the Bears to run Walter Payton.
A few minutes later, after McMahon had scrambled 16 yards to the only touchdown the Bears would need, they touched off their field goal drive with another first-down throw.
This was a screen pass to Payton for 19 yards at a time when the Bears had established their interest in first-down passing. For this reason, the Rams rushed McMahon this time, and also zone-covered his receivers in the deeper patterns. The screen pass took them by surprise.
So, once more, Chicago Coach Mike Ditka won a big game with smart football. The Bears are more than a bunch of tough guys. They're tough and bright.
And also fortunate. Fortunate to have caught this particular opponent in the title match.
Watching the Rams in this game, it was hard to believe that they're the best the NFC West (or East) could send to Chicago.
By far the most inept thing they did was toss away three points, or maybe seven, at the end of the half.
Taking possession on a fumble at the Bear 21 with 1:04 left, the Rams gave no indication that they understand what a hurry-up offense is. They huddled twice--instead of calling a couple of plays at once. They didn't know how to get a timeout, apparently. They didn't know how to stop the clock by throwing the ball out of bounds. They didn't, in truth, deserve to win.
Nor did the Bears show much after the first 10 minutes.
This might have been a tie game in the fourth quarter, 0-0, if the Rams had taken the wind in the first.
The Bears needed a fourth-and-six pass to set up their third-period touchdown. In a scoreless game, it's doubtful if Ditka would throw on fourth and six.
And the Bears needed a sack to get their only other touchdown, which they made on a fumble in the fourth quarter. Earlier, the famous Bear defense had failed to sack Brock, or even hurry him much, until the score was 17-0. The Ram line protected its quarterback beautifully when the game was close. Only in the final minutes, when Brock had to try to make something happen, in the NFL idiom, did the Bears catch him.
It wasn't their awesome defense that hurt the Rams, it was Brock's inability to throw the ball straight.
This will be remembered as the game when the Rams couldn't stop McMahon in the first quarter and when they couldn't stop the clock in the second. But none of that would have mattered if they'd had a pass offense.