LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- There is a reason the 8-3 Bears have been so difficult to get a handle on this season.
Actually, there are many reasons.
The preseason: Lovie Smith tried to tell us the Bears were going to be a good team, but there was every reason to doubt his sincerity when his first reason was the momentum the Bears had accumulated by defeating Minnesota and Detroit to finish the previous season at 7-9.
This was a team with a new offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator and offensive line coach, and yet somehow, young receivers who had not particularly grasped last year's offense were going to master this one; an offensive line that had not protected in '09 was going to snap into shape without any significant upgrades; and a defense that had started 40 different safety tandems under Smith was going to start forcing turnovers to his satisfaction.
Then they proceeded to lose all four games in the preseason, which wouldn't matter so much if they hadn't shown so much difficulty in blocking, tackling and grasping the offense after we were told that six months was plenty of time to learn it.
The new offense: When Devin Aromashodu, one of the more promising Bears receivers from last season, was benched for the Dallas game, it appeared to be just one more sign that the offense was going to take a good long while to get on track.
Then the Bears beat the Cowboys in Dallas, got by a sloppy Packers team, and got trounced by the Giants in a 10-sack disaster two weeks later in which Cutler left at halftime with a concussion. If you weren't wondering then whether the Bears quarterback could survive the rest of the season, you certainly should have been after he was bounced six more times in the loss to Seattle.
Then DeAngelo Hall came to town and left without his jersey as it was sent on to Canton after the Redskins corner intercepted four Cutler passes.
Cutler was holding the ball too long, overthrowing his receivers, and his receivers were often not where they were supposed to be. Cutler was getting impatient, his receivers skittish, and stop me if this is the part where you thought the Bears were going to be a legitimate threat in the NFC race.
The NFL season: Words like "maddening" and "confusing" were not being used solely by those following the Bears. Just as quickly as the Cowboys' star faded, the word parity took on new meaning.
Tampa Bay has won seven games and has yet to defeat a team with a winning record. St. Louis and Seattle are leading the NFC West at 5-6. In the AFC South, Indianapolis and Jacksonville are tied for the lead at 6-5.
The Bears keep getting asked if they're gaining respect from the league with each victory, but honestly, from this league, this season? You can't blame them if they don't particularly care, whatever their reasons are.
"The way we've gotten respect is, we've been in first place in our division just about all of the year," said Smith. "So opinions really don't matter a whole lot. We put a lot into them, but they really don't.
"Our football team, nothing's changed for us. We beat a good team [Sunday], but I think we've beaten a lot of good teams, whether a team has a winning record at the time. We've beaten a lot of good football teams, just like we did [Sunday]. No more than that."
More important for the Bears' offense anyway, is that they have gained the respect of their defense, which had been keeping them in games for much of the season until recently.
"For a while around here, it's been pretty well recognized that the defense has been kind of the top dog and really carried this team for a lot of years," tight end Greg Olsen said. "Offensively, we've taken a lot of pride in saying, 'Hey, we're going to be just as good as our defense. We're going to try to put up as many points as possible and take some of the pressure off of them so they don't feel like they have to win every game.'
"When you combine an offense that's starting to jell and come together with the way our defense has been playing for the most part all season, I think that's why you can see our success as of late."
The Bears are winning consistently because they are playing well consistently. Mike Martz has found the proper balance to keep the running game viable and defenses honest. Look no further than three of Cutler's four touchdowns against the Eagles coming off play-action passes.
And while the offensive line is still its weakest link, they have had the same starting lineup for the past three weeks and have showed vast improvement in their protection, yielding 10 sacks over the current four-game winning streak compared to 23 in the previous four games.
"They're getting used to each other," Olsen said. "People don't realize the offensive line is something that you need to know what the guy next to you is doing, and that familiarity and just the comfort level with those guys is huge. They've done a tremendous job. We've played against some really good defensive fronts between Minnesota and Green Bay and [the Eagles], so they've done a great job. We expect to even continue to get better."
Defensively, the Bears' secondary, obviously benefiting from the addition of Julius Peppers, has been a surprising factor. Danieal Manning is having his best season and actually looks comfortable after seemingly finding a home at strong safety. Tim Jennings and rookie Major Wright are coming on. D.J. Moore has been solid. Chris Harris has settled down after a shaky start.
The Bears have also been exceedingly lucky thus far in keeping their injury numbers down -- heading into the Philadelphia game, no one appeared on the injury report.
"I think it's going to be a fun final five games," Olsen said.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.