CHICAGO -- Dave Wannstedt scribbled a message on the blackboard in the Dallas Cowboys' defensive meeting room for his players to see and absorb:
Defense wins championships.
A visit six days later to a noted NFL den of defense confirmed the message. The Cowboys, making their first playoff appearance in six years, wrapped a defensive bearhug around the Chicago Bears and stormed to a 17-13 upset victory yesterday at Soldier Field.
That put the Cowboys in the NFC semifinals next Sunday against the Central Division champion Detroit Lions. The Cowboys take a six-game winning streak into the contest, as do the Lions, who had a first-round bye.
One key element to the Cowboys' victory was a time-consuming, third-quarter touchdown drive. But even more important were three defensive stands inside their 10 that yielded a mere three points.
"This feels good, but our job is not done," Cowboys defensive end Jim Jeffcoat said. "We've got Detroit next week, and we're going to have to gear it up again."
The Cowboys made several strong statements in the first quarter yesterday. They blitzed on the first play, a defensive tool out of their character. Their linebackers had not posted a sack this season.
Bill Bates' sack of the Bears' Jim Harbaugh at midfield seven plays later forced a fumble that teammate Tony Hill recovered. That set up Ken Willis' 27-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.
"That was what we really wanted to do, take the lead early," Dallas coach Jimmy Johnson said.
Three plays produced nothing the next time the Bears had the ball. Rookie Darrick Brownlow crashed through the right side of the Chicago line to block Maury Buford's punt, and Ken Norton recovered at the Bears' 10. The block was Brownlow's second of the season.
Emmitt Smith made it 10-0 on a 1-yard run four plays later.
"We knew we had to set a tempo early that we could compete with them," said Wannstedt, the Cowboys' defensive coordinator. "We wanted to let them know early that they were going to be in for a ballgame. We weren't going to sit back on our heels. We were going to try to make things happen."
Then came the defensive stands, three of them.
The Bears marched 68 yards on the first possession of the second quarter to the Cowboys' 2. On third-and-one, linebacker Del Rio stuffed Harbaugh for no gain on a sneak. The Bears elected to try a play on fourth down, but end Tony Tolbert spilled Pro Bowl halfback Neal Anderson for a 1-yard loss.
"That gave us some confidence," Cowboys defensive tackle Tony Casillas said. "When you hold the Chicago Bears inside the 5-yard line -- you stuff them -- it's got to give you momentum. Our attitude was that we were not going to let them score."
The Cowboys repeated the feat late in the first half. This time, the Bears marched 77 yards to the Cowboys' 2. On second-and-goal, linebacker Ken Norton stopped Anderson for 1 yard off left tackle. On third down, Norton and Tolbert belted Anderson for no gain, again off left tackle.
"Those goal-line stands made all the difference in the world," said Michael Irvin, the Cowboys' Pro Bowl wide receiver. "We were saying to ourselves, what's going on out there? These guys are stopping them over and over. We didn't want this one to be our [the offense's] fault. We knew we had to go get seven and put it out of reach."
That's exactly what Irvin and his teammates did the next time they had the ball. The Cowboys mounted their only sustained drive of the day, pushing the Bears 75 yards in 14 plays for a decisive score on Steve Beuerlein's 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jay Novacek.
The Bears now needed two touchdowns to take the lead, and the Cowboys slapped them with a final defensive stand for good measure. Taking over late in the third quarter, the Bears moved 73 yards to the Cowboys' 7.
At that point, they decided to scrap their power-football approach and pass on second, third and fourth down. All fell incomplete. A blitzing James Washington hurried Harbaugh into an incompletion on third down, and a blitzing Ray Horton did the same on fourth down.
Through the opening 53 minutes, the Bears snapped the ball nine times inside the Cowboys' 10 but had only three points to show for it. Little wonder their season came to an end.
"Everybody is always talking about the Bears' defense," Cowboys defensive tackle Jimmie Jones said. "But right now, it's the Dallas defense. We wanted to show everyone we're a defense to be reckoned with."