They might as well be wearing leg irons. Or scribbling their game plan on their foreheads. Handicapped by their personnel, burdened by their limitations and apparently convinced that their options are few, the Bears are no longer playing not to lose. They're playing not to win.

And they are giving new life to every opponent they touch. On this particular Sunday it was the defending AFC champion New England Patriots, whose 31-3 victory snapped them out of their previous 3-0 "doldrums" and sent 59,073 fans home rejuvenated.

For the winless Bears, their inability is not about desire. Or effort. Simply, their offense cannot adequately execute a running game without injured linemen Todd Perry and Chris Villarrial; it is unable to generate a believable passing threat with quarterback Rick Mirer still learning and Curtis Conway sidelined; and it cannot depend on a defense strained beyond its breaking point with a strategy born more out of desperation than its own ability.

As a result, they are only the third Bears team in the 78-year history of the franchise to open a season 0-4, forging an unfortunate bond with the '69 (1-13) and '45 (3-7) clubs and sending it into an early tailspin from which it is becoming increasingly difficult to envision recovery.

"I feel really bad that our team is 0-4," running back Raymont Harris said. "This is unbelievable. But you've got to keep the faith that you're going to be able to go out there and get better each week, because if you don't, you're going to be 0-16."

A players-only meeting, in which linebacker Bryan Cox urged his teammates to support each other, followed this latest blot. And indeed, one of only three winless teams is presenting a united front.

This is not the problem.

"Let's not kid ourselves . . . " coach Dave Wannstedt said several times Sunday, going on to explain the very few choices the Bears had against last season's AFC Super Bowl representative.

The offense, which has now managed just three points in the last seven quarters and 10 in the last nine, was the most glaring offender, so predictable in its conservative ways that a basic sweep looked daring.

And the Patriots, obviously possessing rudimentary football know-how, geared up for the inevitable and stuffed the Bears in three plays on six of their first eight possessions.

"It's very, very frustrating," Harris said of the gridlock. "I was thinking the same thing: `Maybe Raymont's going to run up the middle this time.' And guess what? Hello, same thing. I like getting the ball and all, but you want to go for a few different things. You have to be able to do other things. You can't just run up the gut every time. It's not like college or high school, when you could get away with that. You have to have options."

Though his team led only 14-3 after three quarters, New England coach Pete Carroll noticed.

"The way they were playing, once we got a couple of scores, they would have a tough time coming back," he said.

Ouch.

"Let's not kid ourselves," Wannstedt said in defending the game plan. "The only way to beat a team like this is control the (clock), run the ball, get yourself third-and-makables, and we did that. But we didn't convert (on 12 of 15 tries). . . . We have to do what we can do as a team to move the ball and score points, but right now it's awful tough."

You can hardly blame Mirer. In his first regular-season start as Bears quarterback he threw just six passes in the first half and finished a rather forgettable 17 of 25 for 154 yards and two interceptions. The first came from just inside Patriots territory but did not lead to a score, and the second occurred on the last play of the game.

"Let's not kid ourselves--we're struggling," Wannstedt reiterated. "We can't protect. We can't drop back there very often and go five or seven steps. We had some passes open and didn't make good throws."

Mirer chose to credit the Patriots.

"They are going to do a lot of things to make you look bad at times," he said. "Unfortunately, we did things to make it worse."