In their second possession, after they had turned the ball over on the first and given away a 3-0 lead, the San Francisco 49ers took control of their playoff game against the Bears a week ago last Sunday. They ran the ball left, they ran the ball right; they pulled the guards to the left, they pulled the guards to the right. At one point they pulled both the left guard and the left tackle, the fullback sealed off the pursuit behind them, and the Niners’ offensive line steamrolled the Bears’ defense down the right sideline, with Ricky Watters rumbling for about ten yards. San Francisco, the team known for its high-profile stars and its high-octane passing attack, stomped the Bears into the turf at Candlestick Park with a drive that seemed copied from the Vince Lombardi playbook. They went 68 yards, 56 of them on the ground, and finished with a series of three direct, inelegant bursts up the middle, fullback William Floyd scoring on a two-yard run to claim a 7-3 lead.

After Chicago quarterback Steve Walsh gave the ball back on a turnover of his own, an underthrown long pass at midfield, the Niners’ first play of their next drive–after they’d gotten the Bears swaying left and right on the previous possession–was a reverse off an apparent sweep left. Wide receiver John Taylor took the ball back to the right and, overlooked by the Bears’ intense pursuit in the other direction, went 15 yards untouched. The Niners were loosened up by then, San Francisco quarterback Steve Young was putting the ball in the air, and he finished another touchdown drive with a dart to tight end Brent Jones in the end zone. Young had caught the Bears playing a zone defense down near the goal line, and Jones simply ambled out and found an empty spot where he could wait for Young to notice him.

Ah, yes, football. So that’s how it’s played at the highest level. In all the excitement of the Bears’ making the playoffs and winning their first postseason game in five years, we’d almost forgotten what a beautiful, tactical, and unforgiving sport it can be. What had we been doing the previous five months? How deluded had we been to believe that that was competitive football? Was it all just a waste of time?

When we look back at the Bears’ season as a Bears season, it has all the qualities of a mirage, a hallucination produced by the malnourishment of too many years between Super Bowls. Yet when we look back on it the way we survey a typical Cubs campaign–born in the expectation of eventual defeat and endured with an eye for small lessons and tepid if nevertheless involving dramas–it gains a certain stature. The 1994 Bears remind us of the small solace we ought to derive from most sporting events, something we’d lost sight of–what with the Bears and Bulls having been so good for the past ten years, and what with the recent success of the White Sox and the ignominy of the baseball strike combining to make the dull, warm glow of mediocre baseball a forgotten sensation.

The 1994 Bears were by no means a great team. The Niners established that fact long before halftime of their playoff game. The Bears’ defense, a team defense in which everyone was trained to cover for everyone else’s deficiencies, was outclassed by the Niners’ supremacy in speed and ability at the so-called skill positions. Young, Watters, Taylor, and the as yet unmentioned Jerry Rice are too much for any team to deal with, much less the Bears. And the Bears’ sputtering, predictable offense was likewise manhandled by the San Francisco defense, as the Niners brought seven men up on the line and dared Walsh to throw into their secondary of ball hawks, including Deion Sanders, Eric Davis, and Merton Hanks. Backup quarterback Erik Kramer fared only moderately better in the second half.

That was after the Bears, as a team, had taken a direct involvement in embarrassing themselves. Down 13-3 in the second quarter, they completed a critical third-down pass into San Francisco territory; but tackle Andy Heck was called for a penalty, the gain was wiped out, and a play later the Bears had to punt. Then, down 20-3 (the Niners, of course, had marched directly for a touchdown), Walsh threw a miserable pass straight at Hanks. The Chicago defense held for a field goal after that interception, but then the Bears called a fake punt on fourth down on their next possession, and Tony Carter just plain fumbled the ball off the snap on an apparent running play. The Niners turned that miscue into a touchdown–30-3. Then Walsh and the Bears actually put together a pretty good drive in the final minutes–pretty good except for the miserable clock management. They failed to stop the clock on third down with 40 seconds left, evidently because they feared that if they didn’t convert the first down the Niners would get the ball back with enough time to score again. By the time the Bears did complete a first-down pass and call a time-out, under 20 seconds was left on the clock. They had three time-outs left, but not enough time on the clock to run more than two or three plays. When the half ended the Bears had gotten down to the Niners’ 30-yard line, but not in time even to attempt a field goal.

The Bears had proved the previous week that they belonged in the playoffs, whipping the Vikings up in Minnesota in the wild-card game. But in the curious state of “parity” that now rules in the National Football League, they failed to provide the Niners with anything that might be called decent competition. The Bears nevertheless managed to establish themselves as exceptional, in a very unusual way. They belonged on the field, they had earned the right to be there, and bad as things got they never seemed to forget that. Step back for a second and forget that the Bears ever fooled us into believing they had a shot–a slim one, but a shot–at reaching the Super Bowl. (Come clean: the thought was there, just for a moment, after they beat the Vikings, wasn’t it?) Look at the Bears as athletes acting out their wins and losses, their personal triumphs and failures, on a grand stage–either at Soldier Field or on television–and they appear as an unusually honorable bunch, especially for sports in this day and age.

When the season began the Bears were called boring, in this column and elsewhere. And compared to the 80s Bears, the last real Monsters of the Midway, they were a team without a noticeable personality. Look back on the Bears now, however, and they have established themselves as individuals, and what’s more as individuals with a remarkably stoic sense of duty. This was not a team of chest-thumping egomaniacs, a type that dominates today’s sports scene. Of course, there was Alonzo Spellman, but he stood out on this team the same way Walter Payton stood out on the ’85 Bears–as someone whose temperament was out of step with that of his teammates. And even in Spellman we became aware of a person who had to talk the talk in order to make himself walk the walk–a character aware of his own needs and shortcomings, in other words, and in the end a pretty good football player regardless.

Coach Dave Wannstedt defined this team’s temperament: all business, with an emphasis on defining oneself not off the field, not even on the field between plays by strutting around or thumping one’s chest, but in how one played from down to down–by the results. And in many ways Walsh was even more emblematic of the Bears’ fortunes than a quarterback usually is. When nothing was expected of him he proved himself capable. As things became expected of him he cracked occasionally under the pressure. But, like the Bears, he completed one last near-flawless performance in Minnesota before going out in San Francisco–embarrassed, yes, but no more humbled than he had been before.

Then there was Walsh’s defensive equivalent, Chris Zorich, a man whose stature alone seemed to rule him ineligible for the position he was playing. Yet just as Walsh specialized in small gritty details–the ability to read blitzes and then hurry off short passes to wide receivers on slant patterns–Zorich too was a player of grit and determination, as he hustled after running backs who had somehow slipped through the line. He made tackles 5, 10, even 15 yards downfield–a very emblem of the Bears’ defense, determined even in disgrace. There was the quiet defensive secondary; we only heard their names when they were getting burned on a long pass, and so we rarely heard from Donnell Woolford at all. There was rookie running back Raymont Harris, who early on denied that he was any sort of Monster of the Midway grizzly and instead described himself as more of a Boo-Boo, Yogi Bear’s sidekick.

It’s so often said that sports provides a lesson for youngsters, when all it really provides is a lesson in showboating and ill manners, that we try to avoid that sort of talk as general policy. Yet policy or not, the Bears taught us something this season, something about humility and honor and pride in performance that really seemed to have been lost from sports. It’s true, they were hardly champions, but we found ourselves liking these ’94 Bears, and feeling something unusual about them–not disappointment, and certainly not elation, the two polar responses to any sporting event–but respect. What an odd notion in this era, to harbor genuine respect for athletes.