In an up-and-down season, the Bears came to last Sunday’s game with an opportunity to define themselves once and for all. On the strength of an impressive upset of the Miami Dolphins the week before, the Bears had gotten themselves to 6-4, tied for second in the Central Division of the National Football Conference, a game behind the Minnesota Vikings. The day’s opponents, the Lions, were no great shakes as a football team–their record stood even at 5-5–but they had beaten the Bears in Detroit, and given the National Football League’s tendency toward parity (read mediocrity), the football gods seemed to desire an outcome that would leave both teams at 6-5 and confirm them as middle-of-the-pack also-rans with an outside chance to embarrass themselves in the playoffs.

So it was no mere victory the Bears achieved over the Lions. It separated them from the NFL’s mediocre middle echelon and established them as a legitimate playoff team. Even taking a dim view of the Bears, one can project that if they win the games they ought to win (this weekend at Arizona against the Cardinals and at home against the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots) and lose the games they ought to lose (on the road against the Vikings and the Green Bay Packers), they will finish 10-6, almost certainly good enough for a wild-card spot. But it wasn’t just records and scheduling that made the Bears look like contenders; they’d reached the same point last year at 7-5 before betraying themselves as the 7-9 team they were with four straight losses. It was the way in which the Bears won on Sunday, and on the Sunday before against the Dolphins.

This is a pretty good football team, able if not extraordinary, and eminently well coached. What’s more, with special-teams coach Danny Abramowicz pulling an unending series of stunts from his bag of tricks, they’re pretty entertaining as well.

We gathered with good friends Mark and the Boomer to watch the game against the Dolphins–really, to bury the Bears’ hopes for the season. Sure the Bears were 5-4, and sure they were 4-0 under quarterback Steve Walsh, but of their five wins two were against the woeful Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and of the other three only an upset of the Buffalo Bills (who clearly had underestimated the Bears and got caught with their pants down) had any sort of merit at all. The Bears, even if they could back into the playoffs, looked like fodder for some true Super Bowl team. The Dolphins, on the other hand, were 7-2, one of the best teams in the American Football Conference, banged up a bit but still with a strong defense and Dan Marino at quarterback.

Last season the Bears surprised some teams almost as good as the Dolphins, but they did so by deceit. They’d play a muddled game, fall behind, lull the other team to sleep, and hang around in hopes of stealing the victory at the end. Against the Dolphins, however, the Bears stole the game early and then guarded the victory with determination–a completely different and far more respectable approach.

The stealing part came in the first half. The Bears were preparing a field goal, but they lined up in a helter-skelter formation, with a huddle to the left and just a few players–none of them the usual suspects–in the center of the field. The ball was then abruptly hiked to Curtis Conway, a wide receiver with the Bears but a quarterback in high school, and he went running to the right with half the Miami defense in hot pursuit. He eluded one tackle, faked to run, saw that all paths were blocked, and then–throwing off balance and against his momentum–he lofted the ball across the field to the left. Three players converged on it–two Dolphins and (usual) center Jerry Fontenot, who was an eligible receiver in the Bears’ screwy formation. The ball glanced off Fontenot’s paw (as an offensive lineman, he can’t really be said to possess “hands”), all three players fell down, and the only one left standing in the area was Chicago tight end Keith Jennings, who plucked the ball out of the air as if he were a fire fighter catching a baby tossed from a second-story window and ran it in for the score.

“Oh, throw it back, throw it back, we don’t want it!” cried the Boomer.

“That play was ugly!” said Mark.

“What do you mean?” we said. “That’s exactly how Abramowicz drew it up on the chalkboard.”

It was, we have to admit, an ugly, ugly play. Yet it gave the Bears the lead, and they guarded it with all the ferocity of a dog defending a stinky old urine-soaked chew toy from its master. The Dolphins drove on a couple of occasions, but the Bears held them to field goals both times to maintain a 7-6 lead at the half. Then the Bears marched for a legitimate touchdown at a critical juncture in the third quarter to seize a 14-6 lead. Marino, however, not only drove the Dolphins for a touchdown, but added a two-point conversion to tie the score more than midway through the fourth quarter. It was then Walsh rallied the Bears anew and marched them downfield for a field goal. When Marino quickly brought the Dolphins back in the final minute, a potentially game-tying field goal was blocked by the Bears’ 6- foot-7 tackle James “Big Cat” Williams. The Bears had knocked off one of the main contenders for the Super Bowl–on the road, yet.

For the season as a whole, that put the Bears right about where they’d been in the game after scoring on the fake field goal: they had sort of blundered into an advantage, in the form of a winning record, but at least they had something to defend. And defend it they did against the Lions last Sunday.

The Lions are a slovenly, poorly coached football team, but they have at least two players–running back Barry Sanders and inside linebacker Chris Spielman–who probably are better than anybody on the Bears’ roster. The Lions beat the Bears in Detroit on the strength of a long Sanders run that was converted into a touchdown, and a terrific play by Spielman in which he stripped the ball from a Chicago receiver and ran it in 20 yards for a touchdown. They also added a Mel Gray kickoff return for the deciding score in a 21-16 final. For the Bears to win in Soldier Field, they would have to have a precise game plan to neutralize the Lions’ big-play talent, and then execute that game plan to perfection.

And the Bears dominated.

They held the ball three times as long as the Lions had it. They bumped it up and down the field seemingly at will in four- and five-yard increments. They threw in a long pass during the first half in an attempt to deal the Lions an early knockout punch, and instead it went awry and put the Lions back in the game. Yet as the Lions were lurking about, trying to give the Bears some of their own medicine by stealing a game they didn’t deserve to win, the Bears again went for a long pass and this time put Detroit away.

The second time the Bears had the ball, they nibbled the Lions to death. They threw short passes in the flat to spread out the Detroit linebackers, then ran it up the middle to exploit the Lions’ three-man front. It was like those moments in the Three Stooges when Moe hits Curly in the stomach, then pokes him in the eyes, hits him in the stomach, pokes him in the eyes. The long drive ended with a Bears touchdown early in the second quarter.

The next time the Bears got the ball Walsh suddenly looked long down the sideline, and damn if Greg McMurtry hadn’t beaten the cornerback. The ball was there, it was going to catch him in stride, and he was going to go the remaining 65 yards for the touchdown. Yet the Lions’ Bennie Blades hustled over from safety, snatched the pass, and tiptoed out of bounds to give the Lions the ball and field position. They marched it in for the tying score.

Then the two teams exchanged field goals before the half. The Bears’ was deserved and came after another long drive. The Lions’ was scabby and came as the result of a few long passes in the hurry-up offense. Still, there it was, tied at 10.

Walsh has seized the job as the Bears’ quarterback because he knows his limitations much better than Erik Kramer knows his. A less talented quarterback who plays within himself will almost always outperform a more talented quarterback who plays with less discretion. Yet the most likable thing about Walsh is that when the Bears need a good drive to get the lead or protect the ball, he almost always delivers. Call it grit or chemistry or whatever, but Walsh has it right now in spades.

In the third quarter Walsh marched the Bears yet again. This time the Lions were concentrating on stopping the Bears’ short passes, so Walsh got the job done by relying on his runners (Lewis Tillman carried for well over 100 yards on the day) and by converting a couple of third downs with long passes. Detroit eventually halted the drive, but Kevin Butler kicked a field goal to give the Bears a 13-10 lead.

Then came the razzle-dazzle. Abramowicz had noticed that the Lions like to pull their kick-return blockers back into a knot in the center of the field, the better to spring Gray free. It’s one of the things Abramowicz no doubt discovered when studying the films of Gray’s touchdown return in the earlier Detroit game. The Lions’ formation leaves them open to an onside kick, and that’s just what the Bears did, recovering the ball on their own 42 yard line with little difficulty. Walsh marched the team downfield again, but as they were nibbling on the Lions with crisp runs and short passes he went to the very same long pass he’d tried before, this time to Jeff Graham. Blades couldn’t get over in time, Graham caught it in stride, and he coasted into the end zone.

Up ten points in the fourth quarter, the Bears had effectively taken Sanders out of the game. They had a couple of rash moments when stupid penalties by the defense allowed the Lions to keep a drive alive, but then Chris Zorich sacked Detroit quarterback Dave Krieg, forcing a fourth down and pushing the Lions back for a 43-yard field-goal attempt that missed. On what proved to be their final possession, the Lions had to go for it on fourth down in their own territory, and the Bears held.

They marched again. They were on the Detroit 10 yard line when, having bled the Lions of time-outs, they simply downed the ball and watched the clock run out. A year ago the Bears would steal a game they didn’t deserve, and they couldn’t get off the field fast enough, they were so blissfully ashamed. Sunday they had the Lions prone and defeated and stayed their sword. Victory with honor: it’s the difference between a contender and a pretender.