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The last two weeks have done much to establish where the Bears stand in the National Football League this season. After a beginning in which they defeated four straight mediocre teams by slim margins, the Bears then lost to two very good teams by large margins. This left the Bears somewhere in the middle of the NFL pack, but where? Now that they've returned to their winning ways with three straight victories--the last two especially impressive, in that the Bears beat a couple of pretty good teams by encountering and overcoming their own weaknesses--they've shown that they're a lot closer to the top than to the bottom. Don't start planning a Super Bowl party yet, but put off all weekend trips in January: the Bears are going to make the playoffs again, probably as the Central Division champions.

The Bears' uncertain quality--or, rather, the issue of their quality being uncertain--is what made them so entertaining the last couple of weeks; that and, of course, John Madden doing the games on CBS with his partner Pat Summerall. Madden loves the Bears' style of football, and he loves to see them play well. The Bears' trip to New Orleans two weeks ago to play the then-unbeaten Saints was probably the best football game on television since last January's Super Bowl, in part because Madden got such a kick out of seeing these two teams beat on one another. The Bears eliminated the Saints in last season's playoffs, and there was a playoff feel to this game: the Saints wanted to keep their record perfect, and they wanted revenge against the Bears, while the Bears were still looking for their first victory over a team with a winning record, and they wanted to show the Saints who was still boss. The result was a conservative, hard-fought game, which suited both the Bears and Madden.

The Bears fell behind early on a 65-yard touchdown pass--a sort of gambit, as it turned out. The Saints didn't go for the big play the rest of the day; they were content to bide their time with the lead. The Bears scrambled back with a pair of field goals, but the Saints' Morten Andersen kicked a monstrous 60-yard field goal in the ideal conditions of the Superdome just before halftime, to give the Saints a 10-6 advantage.

I was feeling pretty smart along about then. I hadn't expected the Bears to win, and, what's more, I had bet a writer $5 the Bears wouldn't score a touchdown. This is a woman who has made a career out of exaggerating female intelligence and male stupidity, and because she's spent some time of late interviewing a football player I guess she felt she could bet on the Bears with some confidence. The Saints' stern rushing defense hadn't allowed a touchdown on the ground all season, however, and I had no great belief in Chicago quarterback Jim Harbaugh getting the ball home any other way, and so--Bears' loss or not--I was looking forward to taking her money.

Then, however, William "Refrigerator" Perry got involved. He was instrumental in both Chicago touchdowns: not in recovering a fumble on defense, not in returning to the Bears' goal-line offense as a blocking back, but in making a pair of great defensive plays that gave the Bears the ball with good field position. Of course, Madden loved this; no other football announcer in the world loves the Fridge like Madden. When the Fridge falls on his head, Madden gets worked up about it, and when the Fridge plays well, Madden scribbles all over the screen and can barely be contained in the broadcast booth.

Early in the second half, the Fridge forced a fumble with a vicious hit in New Orleans territory, and the Bears' offensive line seized on the opportunity to push the ball home, with Brad Muster scoring off tackle.

A touchdown, on the ground yet. It's been a tough season for male chauvinists. The one good thing about losing a sporting proposition to a woman is she doesn't call you up and crow about it on the telephone--at least, this one didn't.

The Bears weren't about to get off so easy. The Saints marched for another touchdown right away, giving them a 17-13 lead. Harbaugh had looked miserable all day and only got worse as the game went on. Coach Mike Ditka even had Peter Tom Willis warming up for a while, and word was, in the next day's papers, that at one point he was about to tell Harbaugh he was out of the game. Harbaugh avoided this by staying away from Ditka between possessions, back by the bench, a nifty ploy sort of like a pitcher staying in the game by hanging out with the shortstop when the manager visits the mound. In any case, Harbaugh stayed in and suddenly got hot in the last two minutes, after the Bears got the ball back when the Fridge made a great tackle on third down and short yardage to force the Saints to punt one last time. Harbaugh hit a series of short passes and completed a touchdown toss to Tom Waddle in the final minute to make the Bears 20-17 winners.

Last Sunday's game wasn't quite as exciting, but it might have been more important to the Bears. They entered tied with their opponents, the Detroit Lions, for first place in the Central Division at 6-2. The Bears dominated their little acre of the National Football Conference for most of the 80s, watching various teams rise and fall. The Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers all seemed within reach of the Bears in recent seasons, but all have fallen on hard times this year. Now it's the Lions' turn. They've installed the innovative run-and-shoot offense, with the fast-footed Barry Sanders at running back and the rifle-armed Rodney Peete at quarterback, but Peete recently went down with an injury, jeopardizing the Lions' chances this season. Detroit played extremely well on defense in this game to make up for Peete's injury, while the Chicago offense again sputtered.

The Bears came out looking well prepared. Neal Anderson ran for a big gain on the first play from scrimmage, an end run, and then earned a key first down on a third-down play where the Bears got him isolated on a linebacker who couldn't possibly stay with him. Yet the Bears stalled near the goal line and settled for a field goal.

The Bears' defense wasn't quite so well prepared. Its strategy was to stop Sanders and allow the Lions the pass. Detroit backup quarterback Erik Kramer took that to the bank in the second quarter, rallying the Lions to a touchdown through a series of crisp completions.

Both defenses then adapted to the unique demands of the day and stopped the offenses. The Bears' John Mangum, in fact, intercepted a Kramer pass midway through the second quarter. Harbaugh, however, fumbled the ball back right away. The Lions punted the ball deep into Chicago territory, and, after Harbaugh was sacked on third down near the goal line, Maury Buford punted from deep in the end zone. The Lions turned good field position into a field goal and led 10-3 at the half.

The Bears got a break in the form of a fumbled Detroit punt return early in the second half, but Harbaugh was again ineffective, at one point throwing into double coverage and nailing a Detroit defender right between the numbers--the ones on his back, fortunately. The Bears settled for a field goal, 10-6. Harbaugh got it going shortly, though, hitting Wendell Davis with a long, wide-open pass, then picking up a big pass-interference call against the defense and finishing with a short pass into the end zone that Davis came back for to catch for the score. Harbaugh led the team on an impressive drive in the fourth quarter, finishing again with a pass to Davis to ice the game at 20-10.

The Bears are back in first place, all by themselves, at 7-2, but they have yet to play a 60-minute football game. They make mistakes here and there and hope for their defense to keep them in the game so that they can pull it out at the last minute. It's the sort of football that, while ugly, is nevertheless fun to watch, especially with Madden pointing out the cut lips and the blood on the jerseys and the turf stuck in the helmets and the foggy breath puffing out through the face guards. And there's always some key defensive play at the end. Steve McMichael joined Perry in having a big game against the Saints, and against Detroit Richard Dent sealed the victory with a nifty stunt in which he came around behind both McMichael and Perry to sack Kramer with just two minutes to play, quashing the Lions' last-ditch rally. It's the sort of sloppy football that wins games and that thrives in the playoffs--although, to be honest, not against the likes of the Washington Redskins. Still, the Skins beat the Bears a couple of years in a row in the playoffs with an inferior team that played just this sort of game, so I won't be making any more bets against the Bears, especially where a woman's involved. I'm picking them to lose Monday night against the Minnesota Vikings, however, just because I've grown so accustomed to being pleasantly surprised.

The baseball season, although it ended with a very satisfactory World Series, never really involved me on a local level. This was something of a mystery to me until last Friday, when I quite suddenly realized I had simply missed the Bulls. Last spring's National Basketball Association playoffs left me spoiled, because there is nothing right now to rival a Bulls' game at the Chicago Stadium, from the revved-up emotions of the introductions to the intricacy of the strategy to the beauty of a well-executed alley-oop slam dunk.

I hesitate to pick the Bulls to repeat, for the reasons suggested above with the Bears and because basketball is perhaps the most overextended of the major sports. Last Friday's opener convinced me, though, because it reminded me that the Bulls were never really challenged during last season's playoffs. They left me thinking they could have gotten even a little better if they'd been forced to last June, and on this night they swamped the Philadelphia 76ers 110-90. So I'm picking the Bulls to once again put up the best record in the Eastern Conference and to defeat the Portland Trail Blazers in a seven-game final to rival this year's World Series.

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