Early in the game against Green Bay two Sundays ago–during the Packers’ first drive, in fact–middle linebacker Dante Jones stepped in front of a Brett Favre pass at the Bears’ 14-yard line and returned the interception to the 20. In the grip of a Green Bay tackler, he handed the ball off to cornerback Jeremy Lincoln trailing the play. Lincoln skirted the sideline for 80 yards to give the Bears their first score and a 7-0 lead.

It was a brash, daring, almost swashbuckling play and it gave the defense confidence, a confidence that refused to dwindle even when the Packers then marched the length of the field to tie the score. Over the course of the season, the Bears’ defense had advanced from proficiency to excellence, but it was still just a defense, good at defending against the other team’s offense–until the game with the Packers. In that game, the defense took the next step forward. To proficiency and excellence it added confidence, style, a hint of a swagger–attitude, in the modern parlance. Against the Packers, the Bears looked the way they hadn’t looked since the heyday of Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense. They took the ball away and ran it back in the other direction; they smashed receivers loitering their way across the middle of the field; they went into a pile after a fumble and emerged holding the ball aloft. They looked once again like Monsters of the Midway; at the beginning of the season nobody would have thought that possible.

The 30-17 victory over the Pack put the Bears in a three-way tie for first in the Central Division of the National Football Conference, at 7-5. With the Bears’ revival came renewed fan interest. And Bears fans have always preferred seeing the team win the way it did against the Packers, with the defense scoring three touchdowns, than in a 41-38 scorefest decided by a last-minute touchdown. We were out and about running errands, with the tape machine running at home, as the Bears and Packers played. Walking down the street, we heard shouts coming from upstairs apartments. Stomping, clapping, and screaming rumbled from quiet-looking corner taverns. We hurried back to the car as soon as possible and turned on the radio to listen to Dick Butkus and Gary Fencik growl their way through the game with the help of the sports world’s most put-upon play-by-play man, Wayne Larrivee. It was like old times.

So last Sunday morning we stopped in the store for Cheezelets, had lunch cooking at 11:45, spread out everything in front of the television, turned down the sound, and turned on Butkus, Fencik, Larrivee, and Hub Arkush on the radio.

And the Bears got beat by the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Many theories have been put forth about the Bears’ sudden collapse: that they had a letdown after beating four superior teams in a row; that the Bucs, after being embarrassed 47-17 in Chicago in September, had it in for the Bears; that what goes around comes around. The last is closest to the truth, but not quite satisfactory. In the case of the Bears, football should be compared to weekend tennis. Tennis players know a weekend hacker tends to pull down the quality of play of a stronger opponent. He’s slapping serves into the net, chasing down errant shots, dribbling the ball idly between points. It’s enough to drive the stronger player to distraction, which is how weekend hacks chopping the ball back over the net frequently upset players they have no business beating. The Bears, after making several superior teams look bad with their let-them-beat-themselves style of play, finally played a weaker team that threw the same sort of garbage game right back at them: just keep the ball in play and don’t make stupid mistakes.

Of course the Packers helped the Bucs a great deal, because they’d done everything but beat the Bears the previous week. They’d marched up and down the field like someone giving away free samples; they’d get deep into Chicago territory, only to turn over the ball on the Bears’ doorstep. The Bucs saw that in the films of the game. They saw that with the Bears’ cornerbacks playing cautiously deep the quick screen would be there all day. They saw that the Bears’ deep zone allowed a big hole in the center of the field. They knew that if they followed the Packers’ game plan without giving the ball away they had a chance to win.

They had a chance to win because the Bears’ offense was not going to beat them.

In the win over the Packers, remember, the Bears’ offense scored three field goals, while the defense scored three touchdowns. That the offense earned two of those field goals legitimately, after the Pack had tied the score at 17, is what made the Bears appear stronger than they were. Against the Bucs, however, they did nothing until the last two minutes of the first half, and the anemic offense contributed to both first-half Tampa Bay scores.

Keith Jennings, gang-tackled, gave up a tough fumble in Tampa Bay territory; Bucs quarterback Craig Erickson, who kept the Bears’ defensive linemen off balance all day long with a staggered count–somnolent and drawn-out one down, crisp and direct the next–hit open passes on the sidelines and up the middle to get the Bucs into field goal range: 3-0. Then the Bears were pinned at their one-yard line by a Tampa punt that bounced on the five and dropped into the hands of the lead coverage man. The Bears got nothing in three downs–a bad run and two Jim Harbaugh incompletions–and punted the ball out to their own 41, from where Courtney Hawkins, making great cuts (and shaking a Maurice Douglass tackle), ran it back to the seven. Even the Bears would have been able to score from there, and when the Bucs did they led 10-0.

The Bears put together a good drive in the two-minute drill, but Harbaugh was sacked on the final chance to gain yardage, leaving Kevin Butler with a 55-yard kick. With time running out, he booted a low liner that dipped just inside the right upright like a backdoor slider, and the Bears at least were on the board, 10-3, at the half.

That was it for Harbaugh; apparently he’d smacked his hand on an opponent’s helmet making a throw, and the hand swelled up at halftime. P.T. Willis came in and the Bears instantly looked a different team; even Butkus noticed the change. They were crisper running to the line and more aggressive in their passes–they attempted no fewer than three bombs in the half, setting some kind of record for the season. The worst-thrown pass of the bunch turned out the best: Willis had Terry Obee open deep, but telegraphed the pass with a heave of his forward shoulder (a disturbing tendency of his). That gave the Tampa Bay secondary time to recover, but they were unsubtle about it; Obee was shouldered aside as an interception was made in the end zone and the referee threw a flag for pass interference, giving the Bears the ball at the one. Neal Anderson salvaged an otherwise awful day by diving into the end zone, and Arkush said, “Let the controversy begin”–as in quarterback controversy.

But the next time the Bears got the ball, after an interception, the score now tied 10-10, the plays changed; the Bears went back into their don’t-beat-yourself mode and squandered the momentum. With the ball back, the Bucs again found those sideline passes and deep crossing patterns open and went right down for a field goal.

For a team that had seen so much go so right for so long, four straight weeks, almost nothing went right from then on. The Bears showed some razzle-dazzle with a reverse on the kickoff return and a faked reverse that led to a pass to Jennings at the Tampa Bay 40, but then Anderson fumbled. (Butkus had serenaded Anderson with “Ol’ Man River” earlier in the game.) The Bucs led 13-10 through three quarters. A well-thrown Willis bomb to Obee–the very pass he had caught, stretched out in the air, in the victory over the Detroit Lions–was dropped when he hit the ground.

The Bears marched to the Tampa Bay 36 midway through the final frame and went for a first down on fourth and one. They pitched to Tim Worley, and he looked to have an easy first down as he cut wide toward the line of scrimmage. But Tampa Bay safety Marty Carter, pursuing the play from the back side, caught Worley with a shoestring tackle as Worley paused to decide how to get the five or seven yards he seemed about to run. Ball over to Tampa Bay. When the Bears got the ball back they couldn’t respond to the pressure of the ticking clock–Willis looked like the inexperienced quarterback he is–and failed to get a first down at midfield in the final two minutes. The Bucs didn’t get a first down either, but Ron Cox roughed the kicker on the punt. For a team that had thrived by not committing penalties this was the most ironic way to finish the game.

The Bears’ play was a disturbing return to their early season form. The offense was inept and the defense did nothing to alter the team’s fortunes. What’s more, the loss tarnished the win against the Packers. Where had that game come from? A good friend of ours had gone to Soldier Field to see it and he returned hoarse and spent, elated that we had taped it. That was a Bears-Packers game for the ages. Jones, after making that interception and handoff to Lincoln, later scooped up a fumble and ran it in from 32 yards out, huffing and puffing all the way and hurdling Favre as he tried to make a diving tackle at the goal line. Jones wears black-and-white shoes that look like spats, and he took about as long getting up after that great play as W.C. Fields might have taken had he made it in an old movie.

Later still, safety Mark Carrier picked off a pass and ran it in for a touchdown to ice the game at 30-17. He added a coup de grace by pummeling a Green Bay receiver, driving him into the turf, in the closing moments. It was jarring, visceral football, of a sort the Bears hadn’t even hinted at beforehand. So really, it should be no surprise that it evaporated as quickly as it came. Was it a dream, a chimera, a fantastic creature of the Bears’ Super Bowl campaign loosed from our memories? Whatever, it did its damage and ran away.

For a while, it seemed like football season around here.