Bears find way to stumble into first

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Break out the bubbly, the Chicago Bears finally won a preseason game!

(Shuffles papers, examines Internet, calls the NFL for clarification.)

Wait a second, this was a regular-season game. No wonder we got the "a win is a win" treatment after the game.

Well, that's even better. Break out the good champagne, the stuff from Target.

Forgive my confusion, but after watching two horrible quarterbacks struggle to complete a forward pass in 80-degree weather in a half-empty stadium, well, this sure felt like a meaningless game in August.

But the Bears' 23-6 victory over winless Carolina actually makes them 4-1, which is even sweeter considering Green Bay blew a game to the Redskins and fell to 3-2.

If Jay Cutler were playing instead of the very mortal Todd Collins on a sunny, warm Sunday at Bank of America Stadium, the Bears might have won this game by 30.

Obviously Vegas has a good read on Collins' limitations, because Carolina, with a rookie quarterback, was favored by 2½ points as of Sunday morning.

Some would call that a classic "trap game" spread -- the Panthers looked good in a loss to New Orleans while the Bears were coming off a beating in New Jersey -- but to Lovie Smith, who coaches defense and practices self-defense on reporters, it was bulletin board material.

"To come on the road, a 3-1 team, and you're underdogs, it was kind of a slap in the face a little bit," Smith said.

The Bears ended thoughts of an upset by taking a 17-3 lead in the first quarter. The rest of the game was a morass, and Collins' play made it worse, so it didn't feel like a dominating win for Chicago. The sounds in the press box were groans and laughter.

In a city that grinds its teeth worrying about third-down conversions and backup tackles, the main storyline leading up to this week wasn't Julius Peppers' return to Charlotte, or the Bears' defense against a feckless Jimmy Clausen. It was the absence of Cutler, who was ruled out midweek, still recovering from a concussion after the beating he took in last week's horrible 17-3 loss to the Giants.

Cutler's absence opened the window, if only a crack, for the Panthers.

Just when you thought it couldn't get worse than Cutler getting sacked nine times while throwing 11 passes in the swamp, in came Collins, who did everything he could to give the paying crowd a reason to stick around after halftime.

The aging Collins, who reportedly played behind Tom Harmon at Michigan, made Henry Burris cry with his woeful stat line and 6.2 quarterback rating.

Collins completed six passes to the Bears (for 32 yards) and four to the Panthers in three quarters. His misses weren't even close. It's a little disconcerting that the Bears pursued him and gave him a six-figure guarantee to come to training camp.

He didn't mince words after the game.

"Pretty bad. Poor. One of the worst I've ever had," Collins said. "But fortunately it didn't cost us a win."

Collins got the job over Caleb Hanie because of his experience in the league. It didn't show. After a decade and a half of mostly holding clipboards on the sidelines, Collins looked so bad he made Clausen (9-for-22, 61 yards, five sacks, one interception) look at least 37 percent less bumbling. Collins was mercifully pulled late in the third quarter.

"Todd's performance?" Smith said. "Too many turnovers, that part is probably obvious."

That the passing game was disappointing for the third straight week shouldn't be the issue here, because no one with a hold on reality expected Collins to be any good.

While the Bears practiced caution with their sulky QB this past week, Cutler's head would have to be hanging off his neck for him not to start next week against the Seahawks.

The good news for the offense is that while the passing game was a throwback to the bad ol' days, the running game finally arrived, with resident genius Mike Martz forced to use such quirky innovations as handoffs and pitches.

Matt Forte scored two touchdowns in the first quarter, from 18 yards out and a career-high 68. He had 101 of the team's 122 rushing yards in the first quarter, and finished with 166 of the team's 218.

Forte had only 134 yards coming in, while high-priced free agent Chester Taylor had only 19 carries for 66 yards. He finished with 18 rushes for 43 yards.

"We don't pay attention to doubters," Forte said. "We know what we can do. We know we're a talented offense and we can throw the ball and run the ball. It's a matter of executing and doing it."

I guess Forte means they don't pay attention to Martz, who has all but ignored the run before this game. Maybe that's just an effect of the quality of carries early in games, but there's no arguing the Martzers of the Midway are a passing team first and second.

Smith and Martz tried to tap dance around the expected focus on the run, but no one bought it. With Cutler shelved, how much time did they spend preparing to run the ball in practice?

"The same as was spent passing the ball last week, so it was kind of opposite," Forte said, smiling. "We knew we wanted to run the ball and we did it. It made it easier on offense for us [to] run the ball first and then try to pass the ball."

While Martz is off-limits to the media until Wednesday, Smith had a sense of humor about the evolving identity of the offense.

"I'm not saying we're getting off the bus running the ball or anything," Smith said. "I'm staying away from those comments. Today we were able to, and we needed to."

"So old school," Danieal Manning observed. "Just ground and pound. The best team won."

Indeed, the passing game was the only thing missing from a solid win.

Special teams was a throwback, with Robbie Gould hitting three field goals, including a 53-yarder. Manning started the game with a 62-yard kickoff return and Devin Hester added a 50-yard punt return, which ended, embarrassingly enough, in a Collins pick at the 1-yard line.

The defense harassed Clausen as expected, with Peppers tipping and picking off Clausen's first pass in such jaw-dropping fashion, you can see why the Bears are paying him $20 million this season.

The Panthers ran nine times for 60 yards on their first drive, but once the Bears established an early lead, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart were all but shut down. Carolina finished with 85 rushing yards on 25 carries. And with Clausen running and chucking for his life, Carolina had only 147 total yards.

"They got six points, we played well," Peppers said. "That's what you play for, to keep the score down. We don't play to get sacks and keep them down in yards. The most important thing is to keep them out of the end zone. That's one thing we're proud of, because I think that's the first time we did that this year."

"That was definitely some old-school Bear ball where you ran the football, played great defense, got some turnovers, some takeaways, and special teams contributed," Smith said. "We know how to win games that way and it was good to see we could still do that."

Five games into the season, we know the Bears' defense is legit and that the return game has some bite. But that's about all we know for sure.

And this game wasn't much of a measuring stick, because the Panthers looked like the worst team in the NFL for most of the afternoon.

This was a game the Bears had to win, obviously, and a game to endure, and the Bears did both. There is really little to complain about going into next week's game.

So while I wouldn't go waving the 4th Phase flag all over your neighborhood, it's not wrong to say the Bears deserve to be 4-1, and as crazy as it sounds, considering the way they've won these four games, they've earned the right to be called what they are, a first-place team.

I can't believe it either.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.