Mike Ditka’s heart attack has given everyone a newfound sense of reserve. On its most basic all-encompassing level, this means the recognition that football–for all the time spent on it and devoted to it–isn’t as important as life itself. Big step there, especially here in Chicago, where at least one of our papers wraps the sports around the news–and not vice versa–come Monday morning. Yet this sense of reserve has also resulted in better, more effective play by the Bears’ players; they are disciplined, with attention to their weaknesses and reliance upon their strengths. The reserve also shows itself as they reevaluate themselves after every game, as they approach each game one by one. Even after last Sunday’s crushing, satisfying 34-14 win over the Washington Redskins–a game in which the Bears established themselves as the best team in football, at least for the time being–the Bears were reluctant to crow.

Let’s doubly temper our elation over this game with the statement that the Bears did not whip the Redskins as convincingly as the score suggests. The Skins had more first downs than the Bears, they gained more ground than the Bears did in passing the football (almost 300 yards, a fine figure), and in general most of the components of the gameplan they’ve used to beat the Bears two straight times in the play-offs continue to function. On the Bears’ side, it was apparent from the first that they were as up for this game as they were down for the New England Patriots, and that this intensity of play is what caused the final large imbalance in the score. It wasn’t that the Bears outcoached the Redskins, nor was it that they have such a convincing advantage in the quality of their players; it was simply that they outplayed them, all day long. The Bears’ intensity was reflected elsewhere by other underdogs in what became a near-slaughter of favored teams last weekend across the board in the National Football League.

There was also a bit of luck. That the luck came at the hands of the player we expect to be one of the Redskins’ weaknesses, and that the Bears were able to exploit that stroke of luck by sheer talent and gumption, are the elements of skill that swung the game in the Bears’ favor. The reference is, of course, to the combined facemasking/roughing-the-passer penalty assessed Dexter Manley in the first quarter. The Bears led at the time only 7-0, and had Manley not been fingered for the automatic first down, the pass, which was intercepted, would have given the Redskins the ball and excellent field position. What’s more, the Skins had moved the ball effectively but erratically in their first possession. They were not yet ready to be dominated.

The pivotal play of the game took place like this: Manley came around end against the Bears’ tackle Jimbo Covert, who pushed him wider still, and while being pushed out of the play Manley reached back for something to grab hold of in the manner of a subway passenger who finds himself falling, and what he came up with was Mike Tomczak’s face mask. The penalty cleared the way for what became an almost nine-minute drive by the Bears, a drive that crushed the Redskins’ defense and left the Bears clearly in control of the game.

Tomczak is the primary Chicago figure in the play, and if we look at his part in it and his response we should learn something of the Bears’ victory. Tomczak, of course, was torn from his feet like an uprooted tree, and he fell to the ground in a heap. His first response, however, was to push Manley. Manley responded in kind, which probably encouraged the officials who called the additional roughing penalty against him. The very next play, Tomczak called an “end around,” a play in which the opponents’ defensive end is often left open for a block by, of all people, the quarterback. Manley was left open. Tomczak fell into his legs, grabbed his left calf, and gave the leg and its knee a good twist. This gave the Bears a holding penalty, but it also made a statement–a statement by Tomczak both to the Redskins and to his own offensive line.

Tomczak made a similar statement in the Bears’ first possession. After a long and beautiful pass to Dennis Gentry, Tomczak called his own number on a bootleg. It was executed marvelously, with a fine fake by Tomczak. Everyone on the Bears went right, Tomczak went left, hiding the ball behind his left side, and he had only one man between himself and the Redskins’ end zone. Tomczak didn’t shimmy, and he didn’t shake; he lowered his head and ran smack into the opposing player, blew him over, and damn near got in for the touchdown before defensive support arrived. That sort of play–which makes that sort of sound as the pads and helmets meet–has an impact on a football field. On the next play, the Bears’ offensive line so overwhelmed the Redskins on a quarterback sneak that Tomczak could have scored from the five-yard line as easily as he did from the one.

Tomczak showed similar determination–and a bit more skill–after indulging in his returned cheap shot against Manley. The Bears easily could have stalled at that point. Yet with the offensive line again inspired by Tomczak (who ever thought we’d be reading that phrase?), the drive went on. While the Redskins were trying to prove, at this point, that they belonged on the same field as the Bears, and while they did so with a constant sequence of postwhistle pushing and shoving matches, the Bears were quite simply blowing them off the football. The key play came deep in the Redskins’ territory, when Tomezak read a blitz and completed a terrific, urgent, off-balance throw to Wendell Davis to put the Bears down inside the five-yard line. Matt Suhey waltzed in for the touchdown on the next play, the 13th of the drive. The Skins were, at that point, a beaten team that required a change in fortunes to get back in the game. That the Bears’ defense denied the Redskins that change of fortunes is what made them eventual big winners.

The Bears’ defense played an immaculate, instructive game. It showed the Redskins and everyone else how it works, and it did so forcibly. This game meant something to the Bears and Redskins, of course, but it is also sure to mean something to the Los Angeles Rams and Minnesota Vikings, the only two significant opponents the Bears face between now and the play-offs. Both these teams must search through the films from last Sunday to find some weakness to work on, and they may not find it. The defense worked like so: the front line an, linebackers deny the run on the basis of their superior talent, then the front line and the cornerbacks pinch the pass, with the rush refusing to allow long stays in the pocket and the corners slapping the opposing receivers off the line to deny them their short, timing pass routes. This is the theory behind the Bears’ defense of recent years, and with a 14- and then a 20-point lead to lean on it was infallible. Richard Dent had his best day of the year, in addition to making one of the critical plays of the game.

Let’s make this clear: the Skins were able to move the ball. As in the last two times these teams have met, Washington’s game plan was to pass right, pass left, and run center. What happened after they fell behind, however, was that they forgot the run and began passing over the middle. As Doug Williams and later Mark Rypien were rushed to get the ball off, these passes frequently went long into the hands of waiting Chicago defensive backs. The Bears’ potent pass rush was death for the relatively immobile Williams, the Super Bowl MVP of last January. Once the lead was in double digits, Williams had nowhere to hide. Yet the Skins rallied for a time, in the second half, behind Rypien, a younger, scrambling quarterback who solved the Bears’ pass rush for one series, in which he got the Skins on the board. Then Dent made the antipivotal play, the play that kept the momentum from swinging back to the Redskins. He teed off on the pass rush, on the next series, and almost single-handedly forced a Rypien interception. The Redskins’ comeback was over, as the Bears added two more touchdowns on a pretty Tomczak pass to, again, Dennis Gentry, and a nice Neal Anderson run down the sideline.

If the game itself was pivotal, it was pivotal for Tomczak. This was, at the very least, his best performance since the opening-night win over the defending-champion New York Giants last season, and it was probably a good deal better than that. He looked mature; he did everything that was necessary as it needed to be done. Overlooked, in Tomczak’s recent performances, is his relative inexperience; unlike most young quarterbacks, he’s never had the opportunity to go out, fail, and learn some new lessons in failing–a process not merely typical but requisite for NFL quarterbacks. Whenever Tomczak has had a chance to start, he’s been expected to win, and so he hasn’t had that tolerant, steady direction that a developing quarterback requires. That’s why his development has been so spotty, so uneven; that’s why he seems to forget lessons he learned only the week before. Last Sunday, however, Tomczak looked mature. His play calling, when required, was steady and thoughtful. The initial long pass to Gentry was, he later said, an audible, called at the line—as were, we expect, most of his fine adjustments to oncoming blitzes. His intensity and his spirited play, we’ve already pointed out, helped inspire the sometimes recalcitrant offensive line to its best game of the season. Finally, his technique was excellent. As a quarterback who has often been criticized for concentrating too long on a single receiver, Tomczak was marvelous on Sunday both for the way he’d find secondary receivers and for the way he would disguise his passes. There was a wonderful example of this when he looked down the left sideline, stepped toward the left sideline, and then shot a picture-perfect pass right down the middle to Dennis McKinnon on a post pattern.

The most memorable sight from the game–aside from that first shot of Ditka back on the sideline, wearing his aviator glasses and, as usual, worrying his gum to death, and aside from Ditka later lounging on the Bears’ bench (I all he lacked was a cigar)–was the fine, smirky smile Tomczak wore with the game in hand. It said everything about the various slights and embarrassments of the past and about the triumph he was experiencing. It was the not-quite-shy look of the brightest debutante at the cotillion, a look full of poise and intentionally subdued pleasure, of a person doing something incredibly precise right down to the last little social gesture.

Later, on one of the late-night, postnews Bears analysis shows, we saw Mike Singletary in the locker room. He seemed satisfied, but his conversation was more reserved–the oral equivalent of Tomczak’s smile. “I think we’re proving to people we’re for real,” he said. “How for real? We don’t know yet. But we’re for real.”

How for real, indeed.