The Bears are a team held captive by its own recent achievements. They have one of the best three-year, regular-season records in National Football League history, but their two play-off losses in those three years–their failures–cast doubt on their claim to be one of the NFL’s great teams. Having been to the Super Bowl once, only the Super Bowl will do to satisfy the team and its backers. In comparison with the Bears’ glory team, this year’ s offense, even when it shows flashes of brilliance (which have been increasingly rare as the season has advanced), still does not compare with the piston-fire squad of three years ago. The defense, meanwhile, is obviously not on a par with that of the Super Bowl team; where it once pounded its opponents into submission, it now merely settles for keeping them from scoring (most of the time). When Mike Ditka most resembles his 1985 form, his coaching becomes less effective: the team is no longer so malleable as it was, so his temper tantrums are no longer effective. This analysis, of course, is the team from a fan’s point of view, comparing two vintages that can never compete on the same football field, but this inner comparison, this awareness that the Bears are not what they once were–and that doubts remain concerning their rightful place in history–also appears to affect the Bears of 1988. When Mike Ditka says, “I don’t know how good we are,” it translates as, “Clearly, we’re not as good as we were three years ago, but we may be good enough.” Up until last Sunday, it sounded good.

Rarely have a team’s fortunes undergone such abrupt changes as the Bears’ did over two games and six days last week. After beating the San Francisco 49ers in a miserable game Monday night–a game in which play-off-caliber teams performed as if they were playing for the top pick in the college draft–not only did Ditka’s “we might be good enough” talk seem plausible, it seemed correct. The Bears had already handed the best team in the American Conference, the Buffalo Bills, its lone loss of the season. After beating the Niners, the Bears were clearly among the class of their own National Conference. How good were they? Only time would tell.

It took six days.

Ignoring the effects of Jim McMahon’s injury–for the time being, anyway–the questions become: How much did the noticeable flaws in the Monday-night win over the Niners contribute to the loss to the New England Patriots? How much was it simply the strain of playing two emotional games in a row? (Implicit question: Won’t the Bears be called upon to play two emotional games in a row if they make it to the play-offs?) What are the Bears’ real weaknesses? Do they have any strengths? Finally, what do they have left on offense if they don’t have Jim McMahon or Jimbo Covert? These are, on the surface, simple questions, typical of fan anxieties, prompted by the Super Bowl victory of three seasons ago–by success, high expectations, and too frequent failure. What matters, for here and now, is that most guys on one team have to defeat most guys on the other in their assignments over the course of an afternoon. Yet a coach can’t decide what those assignments will be without answering the questions above. Unfortunately, the shadow cast by the 1985 Bears makes it difficult to see this years team clearly in its strengths and its weaknesses. When the Bears lose, it is, primarily, the defense’s fault. The team’s losses over the last three seasons are typified by a panicky breakdown in the defensive system that, when watched closely, almost resembles a military defeat in its fear and carnage. Indeed, the Bears’ recent losses have a ring to them, when recounted, like that of lost battles: the loss earlier this season at home to the Minnesota Vikings, the two losses to the Washington Redskins in the playoffs, last year’s embarrassment against the same Niners on a Monday night, the other Monday night misfortunes against the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Rams one and two years ago, and the final Monday-night loss to the Miami Dolphins in that championship season. There is a similarity to these games; they all share a situation of utter panic on the defense. Passes are suddenly completed, which produces successful running plays, which in turn produces other successful running plays as astute coaches exploit the overzealous Bears’ pursuit with cut-back plays and counters. When the Bears’ defense goes, it unravels first at the comers and then to the core. There are no survivors.

The good news is that the Patriots game was not a panicky breakdown so much as it was a mere failure to play well. Yes, Doug Flutie burned the Bears’ cornerbacks, and yes, the Pats’ John Stephens used cut-back running and counter plays to gain 100 yards on the Bears for the first time since Eric Dickerson did it for the Rams in that aforementioned Monday-night game. Yet while the Bears broke they did not break down, meaning simply that they were not beaten in their own minds so much as they were simply beaten on the field. The Patriots’ offensive line beat the Bears off the football. Don’t expect it to happen again this season.

Because the Bears have a Zen-like triangle at the core of their defense where the power is concentrated. Mike Singletary, as we said before, remains the heart and mind of the Bears’ defense, but it should also be pointed out that the man is having his best season in three years. He appears to be as fit as he has ever been. The step that he seemed to have lost forever after the groin injury of two years ago is back anew. Watch him on pass coverage, or the way he closes on a runner in open field. It’s like watching a lightning bolt pick out the proper tree; the hit appears to happen at once much faster and much slower than it has any right to. Dan Hampton and Steve McMichael, meanwhile, are having the joint season of their careers. They are the ones setting up the stunts on the pass rush; they are the ones shutting down the runs inside. These three players, in fact, are the ones running the Bears’ defense; the success of any Vince Tobin system is secondary to the performance of these three players on any given day. The Patriots ran the ball right at them and succeeded. What does that say? Nothing. No team in the league can run the ball inside on the Bears when they show up. They just didn’t show up against the Pats. It won’t happen again. The most heartening vision of last Sunday was the way Hampton would step over the players, fallen after a run, to get to the new line of scrimmage four yards down the field. It was like watching a man step over dog shit on his front stoop: disgusting, yes, but it’s only a matter of making himself go get the shovel before it’s taken care of; could happen today, might not happen until next week, might just let the rain wash it away.

Not that real problems don’t exist. The mystifying element of the win over the Niners was coach Bill Walsh’s failure to exploit the Bears’ weakness at cornerback. He threw at will to Jerry Rice in the first series, then never went back to him. If it was true that Rice had a gimpy ankle, then why did Walsh continue to run his star wide receiver on end-arounds? If the Bears managed to stop Rice with stiff bump-and-run coverage, then how was that same coverage so ineffective against the Patriots, and, earlier this year, against the Vikings’ Anthony Carter? The Bears will have trouble against any team with a wide receiver like Rice or Carter and against any team that gets out to an early lead and then–like Flutie–concentrates again and again on everything-or-nothing plays against Vestee Jackson.

On offense, there are significant problems, beginning with the line, and it is Ditka’s awareness of this weakness that has caused a noticeable lack of confidence in the play calling of Greg Landry and Ditka himself. Neal Anderson has looked splendid all year–and even had one of the Bears’ few good games against the Pats–but Ditka refuses to run him more than two times in a row because he has no faith that the line can open holes three plays in a row. Last Sunday’s statistics are educational. The Bears averaged 5.4 yards a carry to the Patriots’ 3.4. They succeeded, for the most part, in running the football on the Pats. Why, with the winds swirling and with the Bears shuttling their backup quarterbacks in to replace McMahon, did the Bears continue to rely on the pass in tight situations? Because Ditka had no faith that the offensive line could get it done. Down 20-7, all the Bears required was two good ball-control drives to take the lead. Ditka, however, panicked and continually called upon Mike Tomczak to attempt passes he was unable to complete. Looking back, the Bears’ two touchdowns of the last two weeks were not merely goal-line, they were borderline. In my opinion, McMahon didn’t get into the end zone either time–not against the Niners, not in the first half against the Pats–meaning that the Bears were lucky to come out of the two games with a win. Telling was the Bears’ fourth-down play in the fourth quarter against the Niners. With only inches to go, the Bears went not with a quarterback sneak–relying, as in years past, on the sheer strength of their offensive line–but to a fullback run, which the Niners stuffed. Without Jimbo Covert–or at least without Paul Blair to improve the Bears’ run offense–the Bears are going nowhere in the postseason.

Now they go on without Jim McMahon. They are lucky that next week’s game is a no-brainer against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Count on Mike Tomczak to develop his skills handing off to Anderson; count on the Bears to redevelop their ball-control offense, which they’ll need to survive any postseason play without McMahon. Count on the game the next week–in Washington, against a Redskin team that may well be scrambling for a playoff spot after a tough game this weekend against the New Orleans Saints and a humiliating loss last Sunday against the Houston Oilers–to be another in a series of important and telling confrontations for the Chicago Bears.

And make no mistake. The game with the Redskins is not critical; it’s simply important. The Pittsburgh Steelers of the last decade were a great team. In four separate seasons, they won every game they had to. The Bears, so far, have only done that once. Their first must-win game of the season is still almost two months away, and it comes on a string of two straight losses in critical contests.