Miami: Reality check or building block?

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- In a span of five short days, the Chicago Bears can go a long way toward swaying a national audience that still doesn't really know what to think about them.

In less than two weeks, they can arguably make their first real statement of the season about who they are as a football team.

And if they can defeat the Miami Dolphins in prime time on Thursday night, the Bears can tell those of us who could not envision them winning more than six games this season, well, whatever they want to tell us.

But before we get too carried away with the mea culpas, the Bears defeated a slightly above-average team knee-deep in turmoil with their victory over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. Even in the worst of mismatched seasons, the Bears and Vikings have split seven of the past 11 years. The six teams the Bears have beaten are a combined 12-33.

They can't stumble against the Dolphins and then expect to get it together for the Eagles, Lions, Patriots, Vikings, Jets and Packers -- with the Detroit, Minnesota and Green Bay games on the road.

They have to keep it going, build a body of work.

Nine games into the season, many of us weren't wrong about the Bears so much as we misjudged everyone else.

That victory against the Cowboys? Kind of lost its luster, don't you think? The loss to the Giants, you might argue, doesn't seem quite as bad now that New York is looking like a legitimate playoff team. Then again, how about the Giants' embarrassing loss to Dallas on Sunday?

How to read this season? The Redskins beat the Eagles and Packers and barely lost to the Colts before coming into Chicago and beating the Bears, DeAngelo Hall making Jay Leno's monologue at their expense. But then Washington, albeit with some help from Mike Shanahan, turns around and allows Lions to score nine points in a 14-second span the following week in a 37-25 victory. And then there was their showing against the Eagles on Monday night. ...

Still, there is no denying that the Bears are improving offensively and are legitimately tough defensively. Since the bye week, the offensive line has allowed just two sacks, and they dramatically shored up their efficiency on third down offensively while continuing to clamp down defensively.

We yelled for more balance, and balance we got.

"We're making progress, but that's what you're supposed to do," Smith said. "No team has peaked that early in the season, so it takes a while. We knew the reasons why. There were a lot of different guys playing, there were things that were going on, but we stayed the course. I think each week we have identified problems and tried to fix them, and it's good to see the results turn out that way for a while."

While they were once defensive about their numerous shortcomings offensively, the Bears are more willing to say it hasn't been easy even as it gets easier.

"We've felt all along that even when things weren't perfect, we're making strides, we're learning the offense, and we're becoming more familiar with one another and what we're trying to get accomplished," tight end Greg Olsen said. "So it's been a work in progress. We're not there yet by any means, but we've continued to build week in and week out, and I think these last two weeks we've made good improvement.

"There are still some things we need to improve on to beat these good teams we have down the stretch. That's all it is, is each week trying to get better and trying to get as many wins as you can."

Smith praised the health of his team Monday -- "I can't say enough [about it]," he said -- which is kind of like bragging about their height. Obviously it has been a huge factor, and he knows it. Imagine the Bears enduring the slew of injuries the Packers have absorbed.

Now, in a short week, the 6-3 Bears actually take some legitimate momentum into South Florida, as well as a quarterback who is showing more and more of the rare talent we had seen only in brief flashes.

Oddsmakers still give the 5-4 Dolphins an edge, but the Bears appear to have an edge themselves.

"I want people to know that the Bears are for real," safety Chris Harris said. "So what other way to prove it than on prime time?"

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.