The Bears clinched a playoff spot a month ago, but that didn’t make their last few games inconsequential. They still had to prove they belonged in the playoffs. They open postseason play this weekend with that seemingly elementary fact not yet established. They ended the regular season losing four of their last six games, betraying their 9-1 start as the schedule-maker’s aberration it was. They finished at 11-5, easily the best mark in the Central Division of the National Football Conference. Yet aside from their opening victory over the Seattle Seahawks, who ended the season 9-7, and their second-week win over the Green Bay Packers, who were 1-0 at the time before ending 6-10, the Bears did not defeat a winning team all season. They stand poised to make a hasty exit in the playoffs, an event that would no doubt prompt calls for radical reform in the way the National Football League sets its schedule, which gave the Bears, with their poor record last year, an array of patsy opponents this season. This weekend the Bears’ year could end before it even really begins.

The Bears are not a bad football team. If anything, they established themselves this season as a proud team, performing better than almost anyone thought possible. We’ll save additional compliments, however, for their postmortem–that is, if they prove themselves worthy of a postmortem by winning at least one playoff game. Otherwise, they’ll be just another road kill that we’ll brush to the shoulder, and we’ll go on to the traditional winter sports.

Over the last month and a half of the season, the Bears established nothing about themselves except that they were vulnerable. Four different teams each gave eloquent presentations on how to beat the Bears. To be sure, the Bears had recognizable weaknesses even when they were 9-1, but no one realized how obvious or exploitable they were until the team went whimpering through its last six games.

Coach Mike Ditka worked wonders this season, turning himself and his team around, but the old character flaws began to reappear when the Bears began to falter. The play calling grew suddenly disordered. With the return of Mike Tomczak as starting quarterback, following Jim Harbaugh’s injury in Detroit in game 14, the Bears again began to throw downfield too often–just like last year. The conservative, run-oriented offense that had been forced upon them with Harbaugh at quarterback was abandoned. Last Sunday, down 12-10 in the second half against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Bears got the ball deep in their own end. What they needed was a long and convincing drive downfield, to take the lead and to take the load off the defense, which was bending to the breaking point against the Chiefs’ own punishing running attack. The Bears gained five yards on a run by Neal Anderson on the first play. Then they threw deep downfield twice in a row, both times against the Chiefs’ Albert Lewis, named the best cornerback in the league by Sports Illustrated’s football guru Paul Zimmerman just this week. Lewis swatted both passes away, and the Bears were three plays and out. The Chiefs scored their lone touchdown of the game on a 66-yard drive on the next series.

Ditka became more and more intransigent as the season progressed. He was criticized after the debacle in Minnesota in their 11th game–the first sign of the Bears’ susceptibility–for not replacing Harbaugh with Tomczak and for not throwing more when the game was getting out of hand. Ditka explained his non-moves by expressing loyalty for his players, but loyalty at that point is misplaced. When a team is losing badly, it has to look for some gain. It doesn’t gain by running the same old stuff; that’s for the practice field. It gains by trying new things, by getting a backup some action. A coach never knows when an injury is going to force him to go to his backup quarterback.

Now, after an utterly unprepared Tomczak has suffered through one of the worst games of his career, Ditka has returned to his mercurial ways and speculated this week about starting rookie Peter Tom Willis at quarterback. There are two things wrong with that: if Ditka seriously considered Willis a possible playoff starter, he should have at least gotten him some snaps at the end of the game with the Chiefs; and Ditka completely forgets what happened the last time he chose a rookie to make his first start in the playoffs–when Doug Flutie took the Bears down to defeat in one of the team’s near-annual flops against the Washington Redskins.

Of course, we can’t really blame Ditka for panicking. Tomczak’s performance last weekend was enough to make anyone panic–Tomczak first and foremost–Ditka’s responsibility entirely aside. Tomczak portrayed himself as a quarterback entirely without confidence. While he was trying to get his team–and himself–under control, his feet were busy mimicking Fred Astaire in Top Hat. He reminded us of no one so much as New England quarter-back Tony Eason in the Bears’ Super Bowl pasting of the Patriots five years ago. A quarterback unable to keep his feet firmly on the ground, whose shiver-stepping looks like a little boy looking for a bathroom, is not going to be able to complete a pass. Tomczak completed five on the afternoon–none, however, to the other team.

The offensive and defensive lines were the source of the Bears’ strength over the first half of the season; they were the team’s core of veteran players. As the season progressed, however, they seemed not merely veteran but aged players. Their lack of speed was notable in the Bears’ losses on artificial turf in both Minnesota and Detroit; they couldn’t block the other teams’ defensive players, and they couldn’t run down their offensive players. And throughout the second half of the season–in games on turf and on sod–the Bears’ pass rush weakened. Richard Dent had a couple of terrific games to mask the problem, but it was there just the same. Former San Francisco coach Bill Walsh has said the key to football is a strong pass rush late in the game. By extension, another key to football is a strong pass rush late in the season. That was lacking.

On offense, the Bears rested both center Jay Hilgenberg and left tackle Jim Covert last Saturday. They are likely to return strong. The defensive line, however, did not rest, but was, in fact, punished by the Chiefs’ big, young offensive line. They didn’t chase the Bears off the field, but there was no doubt they won the war of the trenches. The Bears’ 11-5 record did earn them home-field advantage, however, for at least the first playoff game, which will work wonders to minimize the Bears’ slow speed on the lines.

The question then becomes what do the Bears do to win this weekend against the New Orleans Saints? Ditka has to work to reinspire his veteran players, something he’s performed miracles at all season long. He has to go back to a run-based offensive game plan with the intricate trap blocking the Bears were doing so well at mid-season, and the offensive line has to respond to the increased demands of that blocking. Ditka has to stick with Mike Tomczak as quarterback–like it or not. There’s always the possibility that Tomczak will get a hot hand–like a hockey goalie–and take the Bears farther than they deserve to go. The defensive line must be resurgent, and young players must step up to fill the holes created by injuries to Ron Rivera at linebacker and to Lemuel Stinson and David Tate in the secondary.

If all that happens, the Bears will win on Sunday, thus proving once and for all that they are a playoff-caliber team. It says here, however, that they won’t. Tomczak brings out the tout in us. We look at Tomczak, like we look at Bert the gambler in The Hustler, with a discerning eye and see–a loser. A good backup quarterback is ready to play and does not need to be prepared for a possible starting assignment by being inserted into the last stages of a rout (although it’s always considerate on a coach’s part). A good backup is confident he can do the job if given any sort of an opportunity to do it. A good backup knows that fans develop allegiances to quarterbacks, that they almost always love one and hate the other (although, usually, they hate the starter and love the backup), and that he can’t change that and shouldn’t even try. A good backup doesn’t address the fans with foul language. This is a small point, though. Again, it’s possible that Tomczak could get hot, could rebound from one of the worst games of his career to have one of his best. Possible, but not likely.

Early in last Sunday’s game, the Bears put together a fine drive. Neal Anderson and Brad Muster were both running sweeps for big gains. Then, in the best play call of the day, the Bears called a play they stole from San Francisco and made their own. The line swept left, and the quarterback faked the handoff in that direction to Anderson. Then the quarterback rolled right, against the movement of every other player on the team–save one, Brad Muster, who slipped out of the backfield to get wide open in the flat. The play would have gone for a big gain, perhaps a touchdown, but the quarterback overthrew Muster by ten feet. That’s Tomczak to a T. Expect more of the same this weekend.

If we’re wrong, we’ll be glad to return to the Bears in two weeks and give them proper credit. If we’re not, however, it’s best here to recognize the team’s most valuable player. Richard Dent, as always, deserves consideration, but was too inconsistent from week to week. Mike Singletary rebounded from last year, but is not the player he was two seasons ago. Rookie safety Mark Carrier helped address the problems with team speed on defense and set a Bears’ record with ten interceptions, but, really, a safety can’t be called the team’s MVP. Jim Harbaugh performed better than anyone expected, and in that paralleled the team as a whole, but if it was his limitations–his relative inexperience and inability to pass well downfield–that made the Bears strong, didn’t they also, in the end, make the Bears weak? Neal Anderson had another great year. So what? No, the Bears’ MVP this season was left guard Mark Bortz. While former all-pros Hilgenberg and Covert were trying to approach their peak form, Bortz simply got better. He led the sweeps and was the most instrumental lineman in the Bears’ complex system of trap blocking. If he had not been on the team, both Anderson and Harbaugh would have suffered. Bortz was the Bears’ best and most valuable player this season.