The Chicago Bears last made the playoffs in 1963, They actually won an NFL Championship in 1963 before succumbing to obscurity afterward. Once the Super Bowl era kicked in three years later, however, they failed to qualify for postseason play and went 4— 10 during 1974 before hiring new head coach Jack Pardee and improving to 7-7 the following season; finally qualifying for a playoff berth in 1977!
Chicago was led by Walter Payton, an outstanding 24-year-old running back who rushed for 1,852 yards during a 14-game schedule (the league expanded to 16 in 1978). Payton earned MVP honors as his offense finished 13th overall in points scored for that season.
Bob Avellini was also 24 years old at this point, and, though he made some erratic throws with 18 interceptions, his 2,009 yards passing were quite respectable by standards of play for that point in time. Throwing was difficult due to tight restrictions placed upon defensive backs; making it harder to throw the ball; James Scott led all receivers with 50 receptions for 809 yards as an All Pro wideout.
The Bears had an inexperienced offensive line, with every starter between 23-26. Pro Bowl corner Allan Ellis led their defense with six interceptions, ranking 19th in points allowed; both safeties–23-year-old Gary Fencik and Doug Plank picked off four passes.
Pardee’s team opened their inaugural season against two mediocre opponents: the Detroit Lions at home and St. Louis Cardinals away, splitting both. A home date against the New Orleans Saints revealed one of many difficulties they would experience this season – poor performances against bad opponents; indeed, the Saints would only win three games overall that year but one being their 42-24 trouncing of Chicago at Soldier Field!
Unbelievably, just eight days later, Chicago produced one of its finest games ever on national TV – this time against the Los Angeles Rams, who had long been one of their most formidable opponents in the NFC during that decade – playing on Monday Night Football which was then the sole prime-time matchup in the NFL. Payton ran for 126 yards while Chicago’s defense picked off Pat Haden four times to ultimately pull off an upset win of 24-23 over the Los Angeles Rams.
Minnesota was then visited, where the Vikings dominated in the NFC Central (comprising current NFC North teams plus second-year franchise Tampa Bay). Chicago rallied from 13-0 down, led by Payton, who ran for 122 yards, to take an 18-13 advantage before Minnesota’s Chuck Foreman ran 150 and tied the game before winning in overtime with a field goal.
The Bears defeated Atlanta and shut out a poor Green Bay team to improve to 4-3 and give their fan base some optimism. After that, they traveled out West to Houston and delivered a performance that made their previous encounter with New Orleans look like it could be in Super Bowl contention by comparison.
Let us preface our discussion by noting that although the Oilers were an average team en route to an 8-6 record, Earl Campbell, who would become such an indispensable player later this decade, wasn’t yet part of their ranks; he had yet to finish his senior year of college life and earned himself the Heisman Trophy award during this period.
Houston quarterback Dan Pastorini orchestrated an incredible 47-0 defeat of the Bears who used Bob Avellini and Mike Phipps combined, even by today’s standards; it was truly humiliating.
One week later, at home against Kansas City Chiefs – on their way to an eventual 2-12 finish – almost saw the Bears season slip away, until Avellini hit tight end Greg Latta with a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to ensure Payton didn’t waste his 192 rush yards in vain.
At 5-4, there was little room for error during a season when only four teams would qualify for the playoffs–one wild card slot existed back in those days, so the playoffs consisted of the three division winners and one wild card.
Payton likely earned the MVP award on this day. His number was called 40 times, and against an effective defensive unit, he ran for 275 yards on the ground. Chicago’s defense played its best game that year as well. Chicago won 10-7 to keep their hopes for the Central crown and wild-card spot alive.
Thanksgiving Day in Detroit can be difficult for any visiting team. Yet, Chicago managed to come from behind and beat Detroit 31-14 thanks to quarterback Bob Avellini who completed 14/21 passes for 260 yards with two touchdown passes en route to winning 31-14 and building some momentum going into their final push.
Due to scheduling constraints, Chicago only faced Tampa Bay once, but that didn’t stop them from getting rattled in their only matchup, winning 10-0 while holding Buccaneer quarterback Randy Hedberg to 21 passing yards. Two weeks later, they defeated Green Bay 21-10 before Minnesota dropped an important game against the Oakland Raiders, leaving the NFC Central tied at 8-5 going into Week 14.
The Bears still controlled their destiny against Washington for wild-card consideration, though.
Chicago was playing against the New York Giants for their season-finale game. While many in Chicago underestimated them at this time, everyone should have known not to take them too lightly, as the Bears tended in 1977 to play down to the level of competition.
Sleet blanketed the Meadowlands, and New York Giants running backs Larry Csonka and Doug Kotar were better equipped than Payton to deal with it, amassing 253 yards on the ground while holding Payton to 47. However, neither team could reach the end zone; a field goal war ensued until overtime kicked in tied 9-9; finally, Bob Thomas got in position to attempt his game-winner, which ultimately proved successful and sent the Bears into postseason play.
Chicago was rewarded for their effort with a trip to face the Dallas Cowboys, the #1 seed who had dominated defensively throughout the year. Minnesota upset Los Angeles in an NFC divisional playoff game, so Chicago took to the field knowing an NFC Central title game could potentially occur there in the Twin Cities; unfortunately, however Tony Dorsett and Robert Newhouse ran up big rushing yardage totals while Payton was limited to only 60 total yards and Dallas took home a 37-7 victory.
Pardee’s team had every right to feel proud. Dallas turned the entire playoffs into a disaster for everybody, so Chicago found plenty of company in this dismantling process. After eleven years of irrelevance in the Super Bowl era, Chicago won by making a postseason party.
The Bears would make the playoffs again in 1979 before taking a five-year break from the playoffs. In 1984, under Head Coach Mike Ditka, the Bears would advance to the NFC Championship game, losing to the 49ers. Finally, in 1985, the Bears would win it all for the first time in 22 years.
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