And now the chase is on. Believe it or not.
The Bears may not remain in the running for a division title until the final game of the season like baseball's San Francisco Giants, but they certainly have caught Chicago's attention the last two weeks.
Stingy defense and a pair of Kevin Butler field goals won this one 6-0 Sunday over the Atlanta Falcons at Soldier Field. Believers might note it appropriate that Dave Wannstedt's defense threw a shutout in the franchise's 1,000th game. Skeptics, especially those who like to see their teams score touchdowns, might note Atlanta had allowed 146 points in its first four games.
With renewed resolve, if not a revived offense, the Bears take their 2-2 record to Veterans Stadium next Sunday in Philadelphia. They will test an unbeaten but more vulnerable Eagles team, which lost quarterback Randall Cunningham for eight to 10 weeks with a broken leg Sunday.
The Bears also find themselves only one-half game behind NFC Central-leading Detroit (3-2). Preseason favorite Green Bay is 1-3, and defending champion Minnesota sank to 2-2 with Sunday's loss to the 49ers. Tampa Bay (1-3) won its first game of the season with its upset of the Lions.
The Bears defense throttled the NFC's seventh-ranked offense Sunday while registering its first shutout since a 27-0 rout of Tampa Bay on Dec. 14, 1991.
"I have been involved in a lot of great defensive efforts," said Bears coach Dave Wannstedt. "This goes right up to the top with any of them. In the NFL, in college . . . wherever. Our guys were pressed against a bunch of big-time players out there. Atlanta has a lot of talent. It was good coverage, it was good pressure. And it was steady for 60 minutes."
In the end, Butler's long-range field goals from 48 and 52 yards were enough stood up as the game-winners.
The Falcons drove to the Bears 13 at the end of game. But a fourth-down pass from backup quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver to Andre Rison wound up inches short of a first down at the 8.
"We had been playing a lot of different zones," Wannstedt said. "But when we got down there inside the 20 and had the field condensed like that, we just challenged them. We just locked on them man-for-man, and it was truly a good effort. One time by Woody (Donnell Woolford), one time by Tony Blaylock. The pressure was there."
The Bears offense produced 220 total yards, but no points. Quarterback Jim Harbaugh completed 16 of 23 passes for 122 yards. Neal Anderson rushed 24 times for 84 yards. And Tom Waddle caught four passes for 55 yards.
"Offensively, obviously we have work to do," said Wannstedt. "We know it, the players know it. But we didn't turn the ball over. When you go back to the first couple of games of the year, if you look at the turnover ratio, that is a key.
"Nobody is excited about six points, but give Atlanta some credit. They came in and came after us."
The Bears squandered an excellent scoring opportunity with 1:42 left in the first quarter. Chris Gardocki's punt was muffed by the Falcons' Brian Mitchell when he was hit by Jeremy Lincoln. The ball bounded toward the Bears end zone, and Robert Green tried to scoop it up for an easy touchdown. But the ball squirted away from him and Mitchell fell on it on the goal line for a touchback.
"He was trying to pick it up and score. And when guys are giving effort like that, what can you say?" Wannstedt said. "Even though you can't advance it, he was trying to score, and he was giving great effort. Hey, that happens."
The Falcons did turn over the ball at the start of the second quarter when Bobby Hebert's pass was intercepted by nickel back John Mangum.
The Bears drove to the Atlanta 16 before Butler's 33-yard field goal was nullified by a holding penalty on Craig Heyward. Then Butler's 43-yarder was nullified because of a false start by Trace Armstrong. Finally, Butler's 48-yard field goal against a 12 m.p.h. wind made the score 3-0 with 8:36 left in the second quarter.
"I just left it entirely up to Kevin," Wannstedt said. "I was going to kick it as long as he felt comfortable kicking it. He gave the go sign, so we went with it. Your kicker has to feel that you have that kind of confidence in him, which I do."
Hebert and Falcons running back Erric Pegram (85 yards on 17 carries) mishandled an exchange that Chris Zorich recovered at the Atlanta 18.
But the Bears wound up losing nine yards in three plays, and Butler's 44-yard field-goal try sailed wide right.
"You don't want to give away the goal posts; that's one thing I have learned over the years," Butler said in regard to playing the wind. "You can try to guess what the wind is doing, but never play outside the goal posts. It was a good shot. I missed the green."
After a Woolford interception of an Hebert pass with 5:23 left in the third quarter, the Bears drove to the Atlanta 35 before Butler boomed a 52-yard field goal for a 6-0 lead. The kick matched Butler's NFL career longest. He has hit from 52 yards five times.
"He came up to me right before the kick and said he had kicked a 57-yarder as he was warming up at the halftime," Wannstedt said.