Maybe the Chicago Bears really are as good as they were last season. Maybe they don't plan to lounge on a mountain of press clippings, or become contented Super Bowl champions. ``I have one motto,'' says Mike Ditka, the Chicago coach. ``I think simply: Are you satisfied? I'm not satisfied.''
For the first three weeks of the season, however, the Bears were playing just well enough to win, beating Cleveland 41-31, Philadelphia 13-10 in overtime, and the hapless Green Bay Packers 25-12.
But as the '86 campaign reached the one-quarter mark, Chicago once again showed its grizzly side to the National Football League, mauling the Cincinnati Bengals 44-7.
The defense was up to its old tricks, applying a fierce pass rush and forcing Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason into five interceptions, including three almost before you could say ``Refrigerator.''
The catalyst for this return to form was probably starting quarterback Jim McMahon, whose presence seems to affect his teammates on both sides of the ball. Absent since being injured in the opening game, he returned to throw three touchdown passes, a performance that should keep his autobiography, ``McMahon!,'' on the best-seller list.
``I learned that when we have Jim operating, we can score some points, no question,'' Ditka said. ``The thing is, we can try things. We're not afraid to make mistakes, because we can overcome them.''
The Bears are not the league's only 4-0 team. The Washington Redskins, Denver Broncos, and, in a major surprise, the Atlanta Falcons join them with perfect records.
Those teams are in other divisions, however, and the only NFC Central club even close to giving Chicago a run for its money may be the 3-1 Minnesota Vikings, who have looked progressively better since an opening game loss to Detroit.
After that defeat, coach Jerry Burns, the replacement for twice-retired Bud Grant, quipped, ``You're not going to win every game, but I hate to prove it right off the bat.''
Little was expected of the Vikings, but Burns has quickly primed Minnesota to meet the mighty Bears in two of the next three weeks.
Before the season, people would have laughed at the thought of these being big games, but after what the Vikings did to Green Bay Sunday, a reevaluation may be in order.
Behind the six-TD passing of Tommy Kramer, Minnesota registered a 42-7 win over the Pack, which is 0-4 for only the second time in the franchise's 66-year history.
Looking for a spark, Green Bay has invited quarterback Doug Flutie to a tryout. The 1984 Heisman Trophy winner from Boston College has basically been in limbo since the United States Football League went into an extended hibernation.
The Los Angeles Rams own his NFL rights, but they recently acquired rookie passer Jim Everett in a trade with Houston and thus were willing to let the Packers deal with Flutie. Green Bay desperately needs somebody who can make things happen, and Flutie may be the answer.
Miami has that sort of player in Dan Marino, yet he's pressing so much to compensate for a porous defense that the errors sometimes multiply. Take last Sunday's game, for example. San Francisco's four interceptions were the most ever against Marino, who was eventually benched and serenaded by boo birds in the Dolphins' 31-16 defeat. The loss, which dropped Miami to 1-3, its worst start in the Don Shula era, elicited some pretty harsh remarks from the highly respected coach. ``I'm bitterly disappointed in my football team, including myself,'' he said, hardly masking his unhappiness for a squad that has already allowed opponents 142 points.
Miami's woes have allowed Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry, whose team is now 3-1, to tie Shula for second place on the career victories list with 256. George Halas is No. 1 with 325.
Landry has the Cowboys neck-and-neck with the New York Giants and in hot pursuit of the Washington Redskins, whose backfield has been successfully rebuilt, with Jay Schroeder and George Rogers smoothly filling the shoes of retired stars Joe Theismann and John Riggins. Dallas's offense has a bit of a new look, too, with Herschel Walker, an arrival from the USFL, giving ``Big D'' additional ``Big O.'' With Tony Dorsett sitting out Monday's game with an injury, Walker rushed for 82 yards in a 31-7 waltz past winless St. Louis.
Dallas, however, couldn't handle those high-flying Falcons the previous week, losing a wild shootout 37-35. The Atlanta heroes have been kicker Mick Luckhurst, who booted an overtime field goal to beat Tampa Bay Sunday, and quarterback David Archer, a third-year free agent out of Iowa State.
Archer hasn't always been spectacular, but he manages to get the job done, which is just what Jeff Kemp has been asked to do for the 49ers. And in victories over New Orleans and Miami he did just that, taking over for starter Joe Montana, who has probably been lost for the season with an injury.
The New England Patriots, the Bears' dance partners in last season's Super Bowl, started off fast, but have hit the skids the last two weeks, squandering leads with flat second half efforts in losses to Seattle and Denver.
Seattle fell to Washington 19-14 to fall from the ranks of the undefeated, but Steve Largent kept his pass-catching string alive. With three receptions, Largent tied an NFL record set by Philadelphia's Harold Carmichael with a catch in 127 consecutive games.