CHICAGO — Mike Ditka didn’t bring the 1985 Bears defense with him down the red carpet to midfield at halftime Monday night.
Because of the 2013 offense, he didn’t have to.
Backup quarterback Josh McCown accounted for five touchdowns, three before the Bears retired their iconic coach’s jersey No. 89 at intermission, and their beleaguered defense benefited from playing with the lead in a 45-28 victory over the Cowboys at frigid Soldier Field.
The Bears shocked their postseason hopes back to life after back-to-back road losses against last-place teams. They pulled into a first-place tie with the Lions at 7-6 with three games to play and remained a half-game ahead of the lurking Packers.
The Bears still have a thin margin for error because the Lions own the head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of their season series sweep.
In order to win the NFC North — their realistic path to the playoffs — they must finish ahead of the Lions in the standings and outlast the Packers, who could get quarterback Aaron Rodgers back from a broken collarbone Sunday.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. This night alone was worth savoring by the Bears supporters in a crowd of 56,644 that braved a game-time temperature of 8 degrees and a minus-9 wind chill.
The key, perhaps, was that the Bears finally found an opponent with a defense worse than theirs.
The Cowboys entered Week 14 giving up an NFL-worst 422 yards per game, and the Bears exploited their deficiencies — poor tackling, lack of a pass rush and an inability to win blocks — to score on each of the eight possessions on which they tried to advance the ball. Their empty ninth possession was a kneel-down to burn the final 6 seconds.
The Bears gained a season-high 490 yards and possessed the ball for more than 13 minutes longer than the Cowboys.
McCown was the star. For all of the confidence he has inspired while filling in for injured quarterback Jay Cutler in five starts this season, his performance Monday night stands out.
He completed 27 of 36 passes for 348 yards, four touchdowns and a career-high passer rating of 141.9. He also ran for 16 yards and a touchdown.
McCown generally was accurate in tight windows, extended plays with his legs and threw in rhythm.
That made the greatest impact on third down, as the Bears converted 8 of 11 (73 percent), their best rate of the season.
There were numerous offensive highlights, chicken soup for the souls in the home crowd.
McCown revved them up with a gutsy 7-yard touchdown scramble in the second quarter. He recognized an opening at the front of the pocket and sprinted forward. Safety J.J. Wilcox dove at McCown’s legs and got only air, as McCown dove high. Linebacker Sean Lee contacted McCown at the goal line, but McCown helicoptered across.
The 34-year-old quarterback then outdid himself with 10 seconds left in the second quarter.
With no timeouts from the Cowboys 25-yard line, McCown climbed the pocket and lofted a perfectly placed, high-arching throw to the back-right pylon. Receiver Alshon Jeffery leaped and snatched the ball at its highest point over cornerback B.W. Webb and got both feet inbounds.
It gave the Bears a 24-14 lead that set the tone for the jubilant halftime ceremony.
Several members of the ‘85 Bears defense congratulated Ditka via recorded videoboard messages. Ditka concluded his speech by pumping his fist and yelling, “Go Bears!”
They followed Da Coach’s orders. McCown completed second-half touchdowns to running backs Matt Forte and Michael Bush, enabling the Bears to pull away. The Cowboys helped the cause by dropping a pair of potential interceptions.
Meanwhile, the Bears defense enjoyed a scoreboard cushion that absorbed DeMarco Murray’s 146 rushing yards on 18 carries. He surpassed 100 yards on his first carry of the second half, as the Bears tied the NFL record of allowing a 100-yard rusher in six consecutive games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
But like the bitter cold during a uplifting victory, that ultimately didn’t matter.