The Bears are a quarter of the way through their season, and one ought to be able to come to some conclusions about them by this time. Yet the only thing that can be said is that love ’em or leave ’em–and to tell the truth, I’m not sure yet which side I come down on–they sure are exciting. They don’t offer much in the way of top-quality football, but for high-profile drama and human frailty they’re just about unmatched on the sports scene in this town.

When I got a copy of the Bears’ wallet schedule at my regular lunch hangout a couple of months ago, I took one look at their first five games and decided they were quite capable of either winning them all or losing them all. The Detroit Lions at home, the Saints in New Orleans, the New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons at home, and the Vikings up in Minnesota–all playoff-caliber teams, all carrying grudges of one form or another against the Bears. Before the game with the Lions I told a friend that if the Bears lost they would go 0-5, and I believe they would have, especially if they had lost it the way they were going to before their final drive. As it turns out, even with that dramatic opening victory they’re a mediocre team–not uninteresting, just mediocre.

Of course, that’s obvious now, but it wasn’t so clear three weeks ago. In spite of allowing Barry Sanders a touchdown romp in which he seemingly bounced off every member of the Chicago defense, the Bears played very well against the Lions, very much within themselves, and they scored to take the lead early in the fourth quarter. Then, however, the Lions scored, working their fleet covey of wide receivers against the Bears’ prevent defense, and it looked as if the balance of power in the Central Division of the National Football Conference had indeed shifted to Detroit a year ago. But miracle of miracles, quarterback Jim Harbaugh engineered a near-perfect two-minute drill, finishing it with a pass that he said later he tried to plant in Tom Waddle’s belly button, and the Bears had won, had pulled it out. Maybe they would go 5-0 to start after all, and after that what would the future hold?

Not to worry. The Bears played well again in New Orleans–at first, anyway–holding the Saints scoreless in the first half on the way to a 6-0 lead. But all 28 of the points in the second half belonged to the Saints, with two of the four touchdowns coming directly off Harbaugh turnovers–a fumble and an interception. And that game wasn’t as humbling as the following one, a loss to the Giants at home before a nationwide television audience on a Monday night. By this time, the Bears’ numerous deficiencies were becoming obvious.

The offensive line, without the traded Jay Hilgenberg and the injured Mark Bortz, lacked depth and consistency. The career backup Jerry Fontenot replaced Hilgenberg, and rookie tackle Troy Auzenne usurped last year’s phenom Stan Thomas (the Bears’ Tony Mandarich) as a starter, allowing John Wojciechowski to spell Bortz at guard, but the group was still prone to misfiring on running plays and panicking against opponent blitzes. The wide receivers still lacked the requisite speed, a fault that was held against everyone but Waddle, the token white guy. Halfback Neal Anderson showed flashes of his old speed, but continued to run too often with his head down, awaiting the tackle, and fullback Brad Muster remained prone to injury. Harbaugh, meanwhile, lost all the composure he displayed in the Detroit game; he got a case of happy feet, stamping his shoes as he waited for his receivers to come open and throwing the ball with his weight back, the way a shortstop throws from the hole behind third base, which made his passes float.

And nobody even wanted to mention the defense, the main source of pride for Chicago football fans for, well, going back to the inception of the franchise. Richard Dent, Steve McMichael, and William Perry all looked their old selves from time to time–Perry and McMichael especially in the New Orleans game, and Dent in the New York game–but they also showed the inconsistency of careers on the decline. Trace Armstrong was just this side of being a complete disappointment. And the linebackers were shot. Jim Morrissey and Ron Rivera were never more than stopgaps, and it was now becoming apparent that John Roper and Ron Cox would never develop enough to adequately replace them–much less make fans forget Wilber Marshall and Otis Wilson. Mike Singletary, in his final season, had finally seen the last of the days when his incredible sense of anticipation made up for his lack of speed. With Shaun Gayle injured, the Bears had one good defensive back, Mark Carrier, but with three others to exploit opponents had no difficulty avoiding his area of the field. Overall, it looked sad.

So what does one make of last Sunday’s game with the Atlanta Falcons? Well, first of all, it was an aberration. The Falcons came in flat and the Bears came in ready–testimony to head coach Mike Ditka’s bottomless bag of tricks as a motivator. The Bears had both Anderson and Muster healthy for the first time in what seemed an aeon. They also matched up well with the Falcons, as they do (it must now be admitted) with all teams using the new run-and-shoot offense, which allows the Bears to take their measly excuses for linebackers off the field and concentrate on simply rushing the passer and guarding the receivers. They performed a little hometown magic on Soldier Field, allowing it to get soaked in the rain on Saturday, thus neutralizing the Falcons’ considerable edge in speed and quickness on Sunday, which in turn allowed the Bears to execute their game plan of precise misdirection plays. It says here the Bears will go to Minnesota on Sunday and get beat at least as badly as they were against the Saints and Giants. Still, last Sunday’s contest was fun to watch.

Anderson and Muster had their best day in years–perhaps ever–and as most fans watch the ball, not the patterns, this made for a very entertaining game. But the patterns were there and they were lovely. Anderson ran for two touchdowns–one a long one, one a mid-ranger–on similar plays, with the left guard and left tackle pulling right and Anderson swinging across the line behind them and then straight up through the Atlanta defense (he sprang himself for the 49-yard opening score with a great juke move in the broken field). The Falcons have a speedy but small defense built around pursuit and gang-tackling, and the Bears’ misdirection exploited this. By the time the Falcons adjusted, they had also suffered some offensive mistakes, allowing the Bears to take a 31-7 lead by halftime. Darned if Harbaugh didn’t read a blitz and hit Wendell Davis on a slant-in against single coverage–an undefendable play–to close the first half.

The Falcons, usually a team that deploys three down linemen and four linebackers, went to four down linemen and brought two linebackers up on the line of scrimmage, giving them a six-man front, and they stopped the Bears’ running game cold in the third quarter. When they marched for a pair of touchdowns against the Bears’ passive defense, they closed to 31-21. Then, however, the Bears did something unexpected, something amazing, something no one thought them capable of: they made adjustments. With the Falcons bringing six men up on the line, the Bears went to play-action passes to Anderson and Muster in the flat, and Harbaugh started looking for his tight ends. (Keith Jennings, a free-agent pickup only a season ago, made a couple of great catches on the day–one fully extended with his fingertips, the other one-handed on the run–and looked like a Pro Bowl candidate, even though he was playing with a gimpy shoulder.) Muster finished the drive with one of his typical runs, dallying in the backfield as he waited for the hole to open, then surging through it to give the Bears their first third-quarter touchdown on the season and all but ice the game at 38-21.

This is still a franchise on a slow but increasingly rapid decline from its moment of glory at Super Bowl XX in 1986. Yet I’ve become as resigned to watching as Ditka was resigned in defeat following the Monday-night game with the Giants (and he was very resigned that night). The Bears seem to represent the city now more accurately than they ever have. It’s one thing for a team of supermen, like the ’85 Bears, to represent us as we like to picture ourselves as a city–brash, cocky, and not merely able but superior in ability–but that is, ultimately, a fantasy, a balm for a cancerous rust. Today’s Bears represent today’s Chicago, and they do so quite well: they are prone to punching holes in their own river, to bonehead mistakes that muff rehabilitation projects, and from play to play they aren’t sure whether to opt for gambling or industry as the chosen way of doing things. They’re ours, God love ’em, and we’re stuck with ’em.