One simple truth after five games of 2012 is that underneath it all, it is still unclear just how good the Chicago Bears can be.
Not how good they are. They are 4-1 and you are what your record says you are.
But in each of the past two seasons the Bears from about this point of the year began to go inexorably up. After game five last season the Bears reeled off five straight wins, stopping only when Jay Cutler fractured his thumb. After the off week in 2011 the Bears won their next five and seven of their next eight.
A measured appraisal now is that, whereas a team like the Minnesota Vikings is very likely to have some stumbles and even a fall, the Bears on the brink of moving from good to very good.
The Bears have reached a 4-1 mark with a succession of jaw-dropping performances by a defense that scored five touchdowns on takeaways in the last three games.
But heres the thing: They hit 4-1 despite special teams, a perennial strength area of Lovie Smith teams, playing pedestrian football.
And despite the offense standing at 10th rushing yards per game but ranking in the NFLs top 10 in only that and third- and fourth-down efficiency. The No. 10 ranking and average of 123.6 yards per game were boosted by the 214 rushing yards against hapless Jacksonville.
Thats not a negative. What it says is that the 2012 Bears are a good team even without anything close to elite play from two of its three core phases.
But after the break
The rank for the rushing yardage is significant in part because this is precisely the point at which the Bears clicked into another gear in this bedrock area.
But in 2010 the Bears ran for 100 yards in just two of their first seven games. They then rushed for 100-plus in eight of their final nine.
Last season they rushed for an inept 161 combined yards in their first three games. Then came a 224-yard effort against Carolina, 122 in the loss at Detroit. From that point the Bears ran for more than 105 yards in eight of the next 10 games, even without Matt Forte for the last three 100-yarders, and one of the two sub-100s was the Kansas City game, when Forte was lost in the first quarter.
Even in the run game, we started off a little bit slow, but they improve week in and week out, Forte said. As long as we keep improving up front and give Jay Cutler time back there to throw the ball without being rushed or getting hit, hes going to be fine.
This is indeed the point of the year at which the Bears have begun to dominate with balance built on a run game. This year the run game already has been in motion with Mike Tice admittedly still learning how to truly coordinate an offense.
I haven't looked at how we're improving. I don't look at the up and down, Tice said. I kind of take it like a number of things each week. And I think we're getting better, and that's really what I look at.
How much better that can be will be closely watched throughout the NFC for the rest of this year.