It's easy to guess what the unbeaten Chicago Bears, the first team this year to clinch a spot in the National Football League playoffs, are thinking. After demolishing Atlanta 36-0 last Sunday for their 12th straight victory, the Bears must be wondering if they can complete a perfect 16-0 regular season. This feat has been accomplished before (that is, the unbeaten part), most recently by the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who went 14-0, then added three more victories in the post-season, including a Super Bowl triumph. Given the chance, the Dolphins might have gone 19-0. But since the NFL's regular season wasn't expanded from 14 to 16 games until 1978, we can merely speculate.
Next Monday night, (how fortunate can the NFL get?) the Bears play the Dolphins in Miami. National television ratings should go off the chart for that one. The Dolphins will be underdogs, but no Don Shula-coached team has ever been shortchanged in the smarts department.
It is always a puzzle, of course, as to why one team should suddenly be able to dominate an entire league, the way the Bears have so far this season.
Overall team balance is frequently cited as one reason for such dominance, while cutting down on costly mistakes (lost fumbles and interceptions) and avoiding key injuries are others. Although Chicago might qualify on the first two counts, it doesn't on the third. The Bears have been playing without injured first-string quarterback Jim McMahon for three weeks now.
While it isn't recommended that teams change QBs in the middle of a winning streak, Steve Fuller, McMahon's replacement, is an old hand at this. Fuller led the Bears to the NFC title game last season after Jim got hurt. He hasn't disappointed anyone this year, either, guiding the team to 24-, 44-, and 36-point outings.
I don't like to bore you with anything as mundane as defense, but that will be Chicago's edge Monday night in Miami, as it has been all season.
Chicago has shown an exceptional flair for stopping the run and containing the pass. For that the Bears can thank head coach Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, who have devised a series of blitzes that never seem to come from the same place twice in a row.
As always when any unit plays so well for an extended period, the question arises how long it can keep it up.
``I've heard a lot of guys who don't really know us say that we've peaked too soon,'' says linebacker Mike Singletary. ``I disagree. I think you'll find us just as tough in the playoffs.''
Coach John Robinson, whose Los Angeles Rams have occupied first place in the NFC West all season, says the running game of the old Green Bay Packers is part of his philosophy. ``Anytime you can wear down the opposition with your running game, you've created a giant plus for yourself,'' says Robinson, whose team did just that in beating the current Green Bay team 34-17 Sunday. ``I know it's an extremely stubborn way of doing things, but it works and can often get you a lot of points in the fourth period when the other team's defense isn't quite as sharp. We aren't very subtle about our running game and neither were the Packers. But you can still make it work if you execute pro perly.
``Football is not a series of individual plays, but a continuation of things where the success or failure of one play can determine what you do next. Offensively, the best teams are the ones that can control things in the fourth quarter. And if you can run the ball successfully, you can also eat up a lot of the clock.''
What John failed to mention is that few teams have a runner like Eric Dickerson (who gained 150 yards Sunday) or an offensive line like the one that opens the holes for him and the other L.A. backs.
Dave Dalby, the starting center on all three Raider world championship teams, has never missed a league game since joining the silver and black in 1972 as a fourth-round draft choice out of UCLA. Recently Dalby became only the 66th player in NFL history to have taken part in more than 200 consecutive games. ``Dave is what I call the prototype Raider,'' said head coach Tom Flores. ``Since taking over for [Hall of Famer] Jim Otto in 1975, he has been as responsible for our success as anyone on the team. This man is one tough football player.''
Asked about the success 5 ft. 7 in. running back Joe Morris has been having in his fourth year with the New York Giants, offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt replied: ``Sometimes it takes a guy a while to adjust. In college [at Syracuse], Joe ran mostly straight ahead. He didn't need to slow down and read his blocks. But up here the ground game is more sophisticated. Once we got Morris so that he could recognize his mistakes on film, he adjusted very quickly.''