Amid the fretting about the Bears’ sluggish start, there have been signs their Super Bowl aspirations remain realistic. There have been incredible moments to remind everyone what they’re capable of at peak potential:
Danny Trevathan leaping majestically over the line of scrimmage to punch the ball away from Redskins quarterback Case Keenum on fourth down Monday.
Kyle Fuller perfectly anticipating a would-be touchdown pass by the Broncos’ Joe Flacco and cutting it off for an interception, then coming within an inch of returning it for a touchdown.
Khalil Mack and Co. repeatedly swarming Aaron Rodgers in the opener, leaving the Packers at negative yardage after three possessions.
It’s easy to see those plays and imagine the Bears replicating them in January.
‘‘The caliber of guys we have in this locker room is built for this, built for these moments,’’ Mack said after the victory against the Redskins. ‘‘We want to go out and show the world every time we step out what Chicago Bears football is all about.’’
It’s funny how little has changed during the century this franchise has existed. Nearly all the 2019 highlights have come on defense, and there are serious questions about whether the offense will catch up.
Actually, catching up isn’t even on the table. Merely climbing into the top half of the NFL will take quite an effort by a crew that has scored fewer points than the winless Cardinals, Redskins and Bengals. The forecast is bleak Sunday against the Vikings.
But the defense gives the Bears a chance. No matter what.
The adage that defense wins championships has held up surprisingly well in the NFL’s era of offensive enlightenment. The last six Super Bowl winners were eighth or better in points allowed, and some of those offenses were middle-of-the-pack.
The 2008 Steelers were the last team to win a title while ranked 20th or worse in offensive yardage or scoring, and they were overwhelming defensively that season.
While it’s ideal to be great on both sides of the ball, like the recent Patriots title teams, a great defense tends to translate to the playoffs better than a great offense. That’s a good indicator for the Bears, who have been the toughest team to score against since trading for Mack.
They were good before he arrived, then he vaulted them to greatness.
‘‘He helps everybody else out,’’ coach Matt Nagy said. ‘‘He’s a multiplier. And he can make us good coaches. Really.’’
In the last two seasons, the Bears have allowed 16.9 points per game and rank second in total yardage allowed at 295.0. They also have the highest turnover margin at plus-16.
The Bears have allowed four field goals and four touchdowns on 31 opponent possessions, and they’ve done it despite having to play the seventh-most defensive snaps.
And they audaciously think they can do better. That’ll be necessary, by the way, with the Chiefs, Cowboys, Rams and Eagles lurking in the back half of their schedule.
‘‘We never get complacent here,’’ safety Eddie Jackson said. ‘‘So as a defense, it’s early in the season, we’re having a lot of success right now, but we’re not where we want to be.’’
‘‘We’ve got a lot to work on to get better,’’ safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix added.
That’s not really true, but it’s good to think that way.
Where the Bears ultimately want to go is the Super Bowl, so it’s fair to hold them to that standard. The defense meets the criteria easily. Stacked up against the last 10 champions, the Bears’ averages in their last 19 games would rank fourth in points allowed and third in opponent yardage.
Only three Super Bowl winners in the last decade pulled it off without an elite defense: the 2012 Ravens, 2011 Giants and 2009 Saints. The Ravens and Giants were mediocre at 10-6 and 9-7 in the regular season, respectively, but got hot in the playoffs. The Saints were an offensive juggernaut.
More than anything, the Bears’ superpower is the ability to make top quarterbacks look average, and that bodes well for a deep playoff run.
They have the most sacks and lowest opponent passer rating in the NFL in the last 19 games, thanks to a monstrous pass rush and impeccable play in a secondary led by All-Pros Fuller and Jackson.
Rodgers’ completion percentage and yardage in his last three starts against the Bears were below his career averages, and they held him to a 93.7 passer rating — well below his career mark of 103. Mitch Trubisky checked in at 95.4 last season, as a point of reference.
It’s equally hazardous to run against the Bears, who have yielded a league-low 3.7 yards per carry the last two seasons and discouraged many opponents from even trying. Only two teams have seen fewer carries.
The Vikings are sure to try, however, because that’s life when you sink $84 million into Kirk Cousins at quarterback. They’re the only team in the NFL getting more than half its offensive production on the ground this season.
‘‘They’re persistent with it,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘It’s something that they’re going to do, regardless, and they’re good at it.’’
The only reasons that is a viable thought are that Dalvin Cook is highly talented and the Bears’ defensive line is banged up across the board. All three starters and one backup are dealing with some kind of injury. Most significantly, Pro Bowl defensive lineman Akiem Hicks (knee) likely will be a game-time decision.
There’s no certainty the Bears will straighten out their offense. Trubisky might stay this way forever, and the team already seems to be recalibrating its expectations by going more conservative. But the Bears always can count on their defense.
They’ll win enough games to make the playoffs if their defense stays at this level and the offense avoids disaster, but can this approach win it all? It would take truly elite play on defense, like the top-ranked 2015 Broncos or 2013 Seahawks, and the Bears have good cause to think they can do it.