Not all 3-0 records in the NFL are created equal. The Chicago Bears could be a fraud. Or this could be Jay Cutler's year. It's confusing.
One of the reasons I love the NFL is its unpredictable nature. Who expected the Colts to smash the 49ers in San Francisco? Who expected Peyton Manning to be his greatest at age 37 after neck surgery? Who foresaw Eli Manning would fall to third in Manning quarterback hierarchy behind Peyton and Peyton's toddler son, Marshall?
The NFL can't be predicted with certainty three weeks in.
So when I say the Bears' 3-0 record could be misleading, I'm also saying it might not be. Does that make sense?
The case for a falsely inflated Bears' record can be made in one sentence: Two of the wins were against the Vikings and Steelers, teams that remain winless. Let me add this: The Browns also beat the Vikings. So, for quality wins, the Bears have that home opener over the Bengals, and that's it. Beating the Steelers normally means something. These aren't your normal Steelers.
On the flip side, the Bears won their first three games playing the schedule they were dealt. Starting 3-0 counts, regardless of the opponent. The Bears have been 3-0 four times since 1990. Each time, they've made the playoffs. That's the good news for Bears fans. The bad news: They started 7-1 last season and sat at home during the postseason.
The great news for the Bears: NFL teams go where their quarterbacks take them, and Cutler is making plays and taking names.
Cutler's play of the season so far came late in the Steelers game, when Pittsburgh was threatening and the Bears faced a third and 10. Cutler dropped back, scrambled, ran past the first-down spot and dropped his shoulder into Steelers defensive back Robert Golden, sending them both to the ground.
Cutler led with his right, throwing shoulder. That's not what carefully sliding quarterbacks do.
He said he wasn't sorry.
Contrast that Cutler, hell-bent for a first down, with the often used but false image of a dispassionate gunslinger. It takes a certain toughness to be considered a real Chicago Bear, and Cutler showed that attribute on that run. He followed that up with perfect 41-yard pass to Brandon Marshall in coverage by Ike Taylor and a 17-yard touchdown throw to Earl Bennett. All of those plays came on third down.
Marshall calls Cutler “Mr. Fourth Quarter,” and the quarterback has come through with plays late in all three games so far.
The Bears' offense seems reignited under new coach Marc Trestman, who looks more like a rocket scientist than a football strategist. His trust in Cutler, necessary for any coach-quarterback relationship, has paid off so far. Cutler's weapons, which also include running back Matt Forte and receiver Alshon Jeffery, are more than adequate to put points on the board.
The defense, looking to find an identity in the post-Brian Urlacher era, came up with three sacks from its linebackers (two by D.J. Williams, one by Lance Briggs) against the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger. The Bears hadn't had three sacks by linebackers in a game since 2002. The defense also forced the Steelers to commit five turnovers.
There are issues, to be sure, just as there are with any NFL team. The loss of defensive tackle Henry Melton to a knee injury takes some of the fierceness out of the front line. Pass coverage has issues, particularly in dealing with big-time receivers: the Steelers' Antonio Brown caught nine passes for 196 yards and Bengals receiver A.J. Green caught nine for 162.
This is an area of concern, with cornerback Charles Tillman fighting knee and groin issues and this week's game at Detroit featuring the one-and-only Calvin “Megatron” Johnson at receiver.
Pittsburgh came back after a big Bears lead, threatening until Cutler's clutch final drive. Trestman challenged the original ruling that Bennett was out of bounds on Cutler's clinching touchdown throw. He won the challenge.
“We kept our poise in the noise,” Trestman said, perhaps coining a road rallying cry.
Trestman's style – cerebral and inventive – seems to sit well with players who were still in support of coach Lovie Smith when he was fired after last season. Coming in as an outsider and finding common ground and purpose can be harder than it looks, and Trestman seems to have delivered in doing so.
This week's division game at the Lions looms large. The Bears would be two games up on every division team, with division favorite Green Bay struggling at 1-2.
Teams that start the season 3-0 have made the playoffs 75.4 percent of the time since the league expanded to 12 playoff teams in 1990.
Whether the Bears are contenders or pretenders can't be determined this early. But Cutler has no plans to slide and give up any ground so far. That's a good, good sign.