The Bears’ playoff victory over the Minnesota Vikings Sunday was nothing less than actual, physical confirmation of a phenomenon we had only recently written off as a mirage. A month ago when we left the Bears they were steaming toward the National Football League playoffs as a solid second-echelon team–maybe not in the class of the San Francisco 49ers or the Dallas Cowboys but every bit as good as anyone else. The final four weeks of the regular season, however, made such thinking seem deluded. It wasn’t that the Bears went completely south–except for the New England game, they won when we expected them to win and lost when we expected them to lose–but even when they won they looked mediocre, and when they lost they looked very bad indeed.

Let’s pick up the Bears where we left them, with their loss to the Vikings in Minnesota. Yes, it’s true the Bears dominated the action and could have won with a Kevin Butler field goal in overtime (he hooked the ball right, allowing the Vikings to score on their next possession). Yet that game showed more Chicago weaknesses than strengths. It wasn’t just that Butler missed the game-winning kick. It was that the Bears let the Vikings back into the game with a late Lewis Tillman fumble deep in their own territory. And that quarterback Steve Walsh had to overcome early jitters for the second straight game. The Bears seemed afraid to admit how good they were, because in that admission lay responsibility. It was better to be overachievers, surprising solid teams on any given Sunday, than to actually be expected to win.

So the Bears slipped back. The Green Bay Packers smeared them for the second time this season when they traveled to Lambeau Field the following week. They returned home a beaten, diminished bunch, and had to squeeze out a victory over the woeful Los Angeles Rams the following week at Soldier Field. As far as the Bears’ record went, all this was according to plan. After the Bears beat the Arizona Cardinals to go into first place at 8-4, we had expected them to lose to the Vikings and Packers on the road and defeat the Rams and the New England Patriots at home to finish 10-6–surely good enough for a playoff spot. Yet the way in which the Bears lost to the Pack and defeated the Rams was disconcerting, and in the meantime the Patriots were becoming a power. Their second-year quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, had found himself, and their defense was playing with newfound confidence now that it didn’t have to worry about being chased back onto the field at any moment following a Bledsoe interception.

The Bears needed a victory in this final game to guarantee a playoff spot, but the Patriots had put together a six-game winning streak and likewise needed a victory to get into the playoffs. Bledsoe played a remarkably mature game, Walsh was ineffective–the New England defense grabbed and held the initiative against a Chicago offense that looked more predictable than ever–and the Patriots won. One of the teams the Bears were competing against for a playoff spot, the New York Giants, also won to finish, like the Bears, at 9-7, but the Packers and the Detroit Lions were 9-7 as well, and in the complicated group tie-breaking system used by the NFL the Packers, Lions, and Bears, in that order, were in and the Giants were out. Talk about backing into the playoffs.

The Vikings, meanwhile, were beating the ‘Niners on the last Monday night of the season to claim first place in the Bears’ Central Division. That sounds more impressive than it actually was. The ‘Niners, who had already clinched home-field advantage through the playoffs, basically just put in an appearance so the NFL had a game to present on Monday Night Football–not unlike Walter Cronkite doing a cameo on Murphy Brown. The Vikings were in and would play host to the Bears, but they couldn’t feel much pride about the way they’d earned it.

So what we had last Sunday, looking at it from a 90s sensitive-guy point of view, was two teams who didn’t feel very good about themselves. The Bears had resigned themselves to Walsh –dance with the gal who got you there, whenever she’s not puking in the punch bowl–while the Vikes went with Warren Moon, a well-known playoff choke artist recovering from a recently banged-up knee.

And the Bears stomped them with all the brio of the Vince Lombardi-era Packers. No, not that of the mid-80s Bears, a very different team with a very different temperament, reflective of the flaunt-it-baby-flaunt-it, grab-it-if-you-think-you-can-keep-it Reagan era. What coach Dave Wannstedt and the ’94 Bears hark back to (we’ll swing it into present tense here, even though they face almost certain elimination this weekend in San Francisco) is an earnest, forthright, classical sense of competition and sportsmanship. That’s what we remember from their high points this season–the victory over the Miami Dolphins, the lessons they taught Buddy Ryan and the Cardinals about humility and going out and earning respect on the field–and it was the single most pleasurable feeling from the playoff victory over the Vikings. They didn’t just hang around hoping for a chance to steal the game at the end; they earned it.

As usual of late, the Bears opened with a series of mistakes. They had the Vikings three and out on their first possession–except that on third down John Mangum got caught holding. The Bears did eventually force a punt, but then Tillman picked up–that is, let loose–where he’d left off in the last Minnesota game, fumbling the ball. The Vikings kicked a field goal to go up 3-0. Then Walsh, again jittery, bounced a pass off Jay Leeuwenburg’s helmet for an interception. But a Minnesota holding penalty and a clutch Trace Armstrong sack forced the Vikings out of field-goal range. They punted, and Walsh engineered a solid drive that Tillman finished with a one-yard run. The Bears were up 7-3.

That’s where the Bears had been developing the jitters. After all, they’d led briefly against the Packers before getting blown out. And things looked true to form when Butler had to make a touchdown-saving tackle on the ensuing kickoff–Minnesota ball on the Bears 34. Yet a Moon pass went right through Qadry Ismail’s hands and into Barry Minter’s. And having executed the typical, predictable Chicago offense on the previous drive, Walsh went–to the bomb. The Minnesota defense was caught so unawares that receiver Jeff Graham could wait for the underthrown pass as if it were a bus in traffic. A few plays later, Walsh threw a touchdown pass to tight end Keith Jennings on an old play Mike Ditka stole from the ‘Niners–a quarterback bootleg against the grain on an apparent sweep in the other direction. The Bears were up 14-3.

The Vikings drove for a touchdown before the half, with big plays from Amp Lee and Cris Carter. Lee was a persistent problem for the Bears throughout the day, and somehow the Vikings kept creating situations where Carter, their best receiver, was being covered by Mangum, the Bears’ third- or fourth-best cornerback. Carter scored on a pass from Moon, but the Vikes went for the two-point conversion and failed–14-9 at the half.

After halftime the Bears came out smoking. Whether it was something Wannstedt said in the locker room or Walsh said on the field–one of his best qualities is an ability to inspire the team at a critical juncture–it worked. The Bears scored from their 25 yard line on four big plays–one of them another long pass to Curtis Conway, and the finisher a 29-yard romp by fullback Raymont Harris. The Vikings had already shown how panicky they were by going for the two-point conversion in the first half. Now the Bears knew they would abandon the ground game and resort to throwing, and the Bears linemen teed off on Moon.

Wannstedt has put together an exceptional pass defense. The Bears rush four men and keep seven deep on coverage –sometimes eight, with a three-man rush. The offense is required to keep five linemen in to block, which leaves the quarterback only five possible receivers. But the Vikings got around this numerical disadvantage by throwing screen passes to Lee, which allowed their linemen to first pass block and then get downfield in front of him. (Look for the ‘Niners to do a lot of that with Ricky Watters on Saturday.) The Vikes drove for a field goal to make the score 21-12 at the end of three quarters.

The Bears opened the final frame with a nice pass to Conway at midfield; a roughing-the-passer penalty tacked on 15 yards and moved the Bears to about the Minnesota 35. There they turned cautious, narrowly making a fourth-and-short on a quarterback sneak by Walsh. But on the next play he went for a touchdown on a timing pass to Graham–and he hit him. The Bears were up 28-12.

The Bears sat back in a prevent defense and the Vikings drove without much trouble for another touchdown, but again they failed with a two-point conversion. This led them to try an onside kick, but Tom Waddle came up with it. So the Bears had the ball deep in Minnesota territory, and again it came to fourth and short yardage. This time, the Bears pitched out wide–probably for one of the few times this season–and the play was snuffed. The Vikings had the ball back.

That’s when Lee’s luck finally ran out. Again Moon hit him coming out of the backfield, but this time Mo Douglass smashed him from the side and Lee put

the ball on the carpet. Kevin Miniefield scooped it up and ran it home as if it were a lost kitten tucked under a jacket, and the Bears were 35-18 victors.

Oddly enough, this puts the Bears in a ticklish situation. The ‘Niners have too much talent for the Bears to compete. The Bears’ best hope is to revert to their old style of play–make mistakes, fall behind, stay close, and hope to lull the ‘Niners to sleep and steal a game that doesn’t belong to them. The Bears, however, have come too far for that. They will probably play a steadfast, upright game to the best of their abilities–and may the best team win. They’ll probably get beaten by three touchdowns. But I imagine this will feel better for the players–more honorable–than any of their cheap and cheesy victories of last season. It already feels better for the fans.