Pro football's probable and improbable have come to pass. As expected, the Chicago Bears continued their relentless march through the playoffs, beating the Los Angeles Rams 24-0 Sunday for the National Football Conference title. Unexpectedly, however, the New England Patriots followed suit, penning yet another surprising chapter in their playoff history by defeating the Miami Dolphins 31-14 for the American Conference crown.
The result is a first for both teams -- a trip to the Super Bowl in New Orleans on Jan. 26.
The matchup promises many intriguing angles, most of which will be covered thoroughly by the media hordes in the two weeks leading up to the game. Some examples:
The battle of coaching wits between Chicago's Mike Ditka and New England's Raymond Berry, both former standout NFL receivers and Dallas Cowboy assistants.
The contrast between Chicago's 17-1 juggernaut, the obvious favorite, and New England's 14-5 Cinderellas, who are the first group to ever reach the Super Bowl with three consecutive road victories and could become the second wild-card team to win a league championship. (The Raiders did it five years ago).
The Bears, however, have excelled in the favorites role as much as the Patriots have as underdogs.
Chicago has yet to relinquish a point in the playoffs and has looked like one of the best defensive teams ever in blanking the New York Giants 21-0, then the Rams, in unprecedented back-to-back shutouts.
Against LA, Chicago's tackling commandos met Eric Dickerson at every turn, limiting the Rams' star runner to just 46 yards on 17 carries only a week after he'd rushed for a playoff record 248 against Dallas. Without its bread and butter, Los Angeles was lost, forced to pass into the teeth of Chicago's intimidating anti-aerial defenses and the swirling Soldier Field winds.
Ram quarterback Dieter Brock finished the game with just 66 yards on 10 completions, while his supremely confident counterpart on the Bears, Jim McMahon, didn't strike often, but certainly enough. He opened the scoring on a 16-yard touchdown scamper, and later connected with Willie Gault on a 22-yard touchdown pass. Kevin Butler chipped in with a field goal, and fittingly, the havoc-wreaking defense completed the scoring, with linebacker Wilber Marshall picking up a fumble and lugging it 52 yards into the end zone. This fourth-quarter icing came after a sunny day had turned gray and snowy in a perfect meteorological salute to football's reigning cold-weather kings.
Though it was relatively mild by Chicago's winter standards, the Rams could have used some mental anti-freeze late in the first half, when they squandered a golden scoring opportunity that might have changed the complexion of the contest. They recovered a fumbled punt on the Bears' 21-yard line with 1:04 left and one timeout remaining. The Rams, however, seemed totally unaware of the urgency of the situation, didn't use their timeout, and let the half wind down without so much as a field goal attempt.
If the Rams wound up with goat horns for this blunder, the Dolphins spread theirs around with a collection of miscues. New England, of course, deserves credit for forcing Miami's six turnovers, which began on the opening offensive series when Tony Nathan coughed up the ball deep in Dolphin territory.
The Patriots, who practice stripping the ball, couldn't capitalize completely, settling for a 23-yard field goal, yet the die was cast. Miami was the team that would become rattled in this contest, which seemed ironic considering how many times throughout the years the Patriots had cracked in similar situations.
New England's frustrations in the Orange Bowl are especially legend -- 18 straight losses in Miami dating back to 1966, including a 30-27 defeat during the next-to-last regular season game. Why, the monkey on the Patriots back had begun to look like King Kong.
In the past 11/2 seasons, though, coach Raymond Berry has retooled the team's mental outlook, making believers out of players who no longer reach for alibis.
Berry plays it conservatively on offense, leaving it up to the aggressive defense and special teams to get field position and generate scoring opportunities. The linchpin of the strategy is the play of third-year quarterback Tony Eason, who learned new composure watching veteran Steve Grogan come off the bench to engineer a six-game midseason winning streak before sustaining a leg injury.
In the previous Miami game, Eason had thrown a critical late interception, but this time he ran the offense flawlessly, completing 10 of 12 passes, including three for touchdowns, and each to a different receiver -- Tony Collins, Derrick Ramsey, and Robert Weathers. Meanwhile, the grind-it-out running attack controlled the ball with 255 ground yards to Miami's 68, as the defense kept the Dolphins' famed quick-strike passing game in check.
So now it's on to the Super Bowl to face Chicago, which came out on top 20-7 when the two teams met early in the season. The Patriots, however, have already turned the tables on three teams that beat them during the regular campaign -- the Jets, Raiders, and Dolphins -- and now will come loaded for bear for the Bears.