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On This Date in Sports January 10,1988: Bittersweet Ending

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

The Washington Redskins eliminated the Chicago Bears in the Divisional Playoffs for the second straight season, winning 21-17 at Soldier Field in Walter Payton’s final NFL Game. The Bears had gotten off to a great start taking a 14-0 lead. The Redskins rallied and took the lead as Jim McMahon was picked off three times. Seeking to take the lead, Payton is forced out of bounds, one yard short of a first down marker.

It was the same time next year for the Bears, coached by Mike Ditka, and Redskins coached by Joe Gibbs, as they played in the NFC Divisional Playoffs for the second straight season. The Redskins ended the Bears' hopes of a second straight Super Bowl with a 27-13 win, spoiling a highly anticipated NFC Championship showdown with the New York Giants. Each team had records of 11-4 during the regular, with the Bears getting the home-field edge, despite losing two of their last three games.

The major concern for the Washington Redskins was a brewing quarterback controversy. Jay Schroeder, who was the starter most of the season, was dealing with a nagging shoulder injury as the playoffs began. Doug Williams, who was more popular with his teammates, was named the starter for the playoff game in Chicago despite losing his only two starts in the regular season.

The game did not start well for Doug Williams and the Redskins, as he was stripped and sacked by Richard Dent, allowing Steve McMichael to recover the ball at the Washington 30-yard line. The Bears would cash in the early opportunity, taking a 7-0 first quarter lead on a two-yard touchdown run by Calvin Thomas. Looking to answer, the Redskins went for it on fourth down in Bears territory, only to see George Rogers thrown for a loss. The Bears would follow up the defensive stand with a long nine-minute drive that carried over into the second quarter, with Jim McMahon completing a 14-yard touchdown pass to Ron Morris to make it 14-0. Williams got the Redskins offense on track with a 32-yard pass to Ricky Sanders, which helped spark a scoring drive that was capped with a three-yard run by Rodgers. The Bears looking to answer, drove into Washington territory only to see Kevin Butler miss a 48-yard field goal. With less than two minutes left, Doug Williams was able to work the ball quickly down the field and tie the game 14-14 on an 18-yard touchdown pass to Clint Didier. 

The Redskins momentum continued in the third quarter, as they took the lead on a 52-yard punt return by Darrell Green. The Bears looked to answer but were forced to settle for a 25-yard field goal by Kevin Butler to make the score 21-17 in favor of the Redskins. The Bears would get several chances to regain the lead, but Jim McMahon was picked off three times in the second half. After Doug Williams was stopped short on a quarterback sneak, the Bears got the ball back at midfield with 1:13 left. Three plays later, facing 4th down and eight, the Bears called on Walter Payton to keep their season alive. Payton appeared to be closing in on a first down but was pushed out of bounds one yard short.

The Redskins won the game 21-17 combined with the Minnesota Vikings 36-24 upset over the San Francisco 49ers a day earlier; it marked the first time since playoff seeding began that both the #1 and #2 seeds lost in the Divisional Playoffs. The Redskins would beat the Vikings 17-10 to advance to Super Bowl XXII, where they would beat the Denver Broncos 45-10, with Doug Williams earning Super Bowl MVP.

The loss was especially bitter for the Chicago Bears, as it was the final game in the career of Walter Payton. Before the season, Sweetness announced he would retire when the year was over, ending a Hall of Fame career that saw him become the NFL’s all-time leading rusher with 16,726 yards. In his final game, Payton rushed for 85 yards on 18 carries while catching three passes for 20 yards.  As the last seconds ticked down and the Redskins got in victory formation, Walter Payton was seen weeping on the Bears' bench.