Given the pre-season evidence, few people could have foreseen a 7-3 record for Chicago at this stage of the National Football League's regular season. In fact, that pace could change quickly now that quarterback Jim McMahon is out, probably for the year, following an injury sustained in last week's 17-6 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Raiders.
The defense played a prominent role in that victory, recording nine quarterback sacks. Richard Dent was credited with 41/2 of them.
Replacing McMahon Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams will be Steve Fuller, who once started briefly with Kansas City and was a nonplaying reserve for the Rams last year. Chicago does run the ball more than most teams, meaning less pressure on Fuller and a continued heavy workload for running back Walter Payton.
Payton is a marvel at getting out of situations where he appears trapped behind the line of scrimmage. While there are faster players in the league, no one, with the possible exception of Eric Dickerson of the Rams, comes close to having Payton's instincts in traffic.
Despite the Bears' consistency, this has not been a particularly easy year for Coach Mike Ditka. When his contract was not extended beyond this season, there was speculation that maybe someone in the organization wasn't satisfied with the club's progress. Of course when players hear something like that, there's no telling how it might affect them, but so far they have performed well.
There were also early-season reports that Ditka and the team's defensive coordinator, Buddy Ryan, were having serious disagreements over the complexity of Ryan's system, plus his evaluation of certain players. While Buddy has a reputation for preferring Einstein types, provided they also have the standard number of overdeveloped muscles, Mike has always leaned toward players who give directions by picking up a field plow and pointing with it.
If the Bears can survive the forced hibernation of McMahon, the concern that comes with having to possibly meet a team like San Francisco in the playoffs should be greatly reduced. Second-place Eagles trail four teams
Somebody should have a talk with the Philadelphia Eagles, the only team in the NFC East which can't seem to get its won-lost priorities straight. With fellow division members St. Louis, Dallas, Washington, and the New York Giants all tied for first place with identical 6-4 records, Phladelphia's 4-5-1 mark shows a definite lack of cooperation. Although the Eagles often do good things defensively, putting points on the board has, for them, been something like trying to nail Jello-O to a wall.
The St. Louis Cardinals, who had won four in a row, a streak that included victories over quality opponents Dallas, Chicago, and Washington, were averaging 30.6 points per game when they played the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday. However, the Rams won 16-13 on the strength of an aggressive and imaginative defense.
St. Louis also couldn't stop Eric Dickerson, who ran for 208 yards on 21 carries. Dickerson's performance was good enough to take the NFL rushing lead away from Chicago's Walter Payton. The Rams and Bears meet next week in Anaheim. Eric has now gained 1,160 yards this year, Payton 1,112. Elsewhere around the NFL
* Even the great ones can have off days. San Francisco QB Joe Montana was a perfect example Sunday. Although the 49ers beat the Cincinnati Bengals 23-7 to raise their record to 9-1, Montana was intercepted a career high four times. Before the first theft, Joe had completed a club record 18 straight passes over two games.
* I'm impressed with any club that rings up a 45-0 shutout, which is what the Seattle Seahawks did Sunday in beating the visiting Kansas City Chiefs. That was the Seahawks' second shutout in a row and their third of the season. They earlier blanked San Diego and St. Louis. Cornerback Dave Brown returned intercepted passes 95 and 58 yards for touchdowns against the Chiefs.
* Words have never come easily to San Diego wide receiver Charlie Joiner, who is now in his 16th NFL season. But even Joiner realized he would have to make some statement after catching nine passes in Sunday's 38-10 Charger victory over Indianapolis. Those catches not only made Charlie the NFL's all-time No. 2 pass receiver, but left him only 14 catches away from Charlie Taylor, the top man. Asked if, at age 37, he considered himself pro football's Pete Rose, Joiner replied: ''Nope, I just try to do what I can. I run the routes the coaches tell me and I never question them about strategy.''