Pretend, for a moment, that Walter Payton isn't about to break one of the more celebrated records in pro football. Forget Chicago Coach Mike Ditka's curious decision not to give Payton the ball more than five times in the second half of the Bears' 23-14 loss to Dallas Sunday. Ignore Ditka's postgame "show," a press conference dripping with venom and sarcasm that already has won him national notoriety.

Drop the sideshows of a Sunday at Soldier Field and look at what's left.

The Dallas Cowboys.

They have the second-best record in the National Football Conference (4-1) and lead the East by one game over the Redskins and New York Giants. They have done this with an inexperienced quarterback, a running game that is spinning its wheels and a defense that relies as much on others' mistakes as it does on its own big plays.

Doomsday? Not quite. But, for a team that lost to the Giants, 28-7, four games ago, it's not bad.

In Dallas, there has been the usual manic concern over the Cowboys. "We were 3-1 (going into the game)," quarterback Gary Hogeboom said Sunday in the locker room, "but coming out of Dallas and all the negative press we were getting, we had to go out and prove ourselves. And that's what we have to keep doing."

Against the Bears, who also were 3-1 before the game, the Cowboys hardly were impressive. They were outgained, 400 yards to 313, which includes a 283-59 margin on the ground. Tony Dorsett, who gained only 51 yards on 18 attempts, said, "We're not doing the things we should be doing on the ground. We have to go out and make things happen, and we're not. If we're going to be the football team we want to be, we've got to run the football."

Dorsett, who is averaging only 67 rushing yards per game, had more to say about the running game. His postgame comments could not rival Ditka's ("No. Yes. No."), but they take up more room in the paper.

"We need a running game, and we need the coaches to stress it. Yours truly is ready to go, but I don't know how much more of this I can take. I'm not surprised we're winning football games, but I am surprised at the way we're executing. It's just not us. The encouraging thing is that we're winning. If it looks ugly, it looks ugly."

Winning ugly is back. An example: Payton, who needs just 67 yards Sunday against New Orleans to break Jim Brown's all-time NFL rushing record, gained 130 yards, mainly on draw plays, in the first half against the Cowboys. Then he was given the ball just five times in the second half for 25 more yards. The Bears' fault, right?

That's what everyone thought. But, subtly, the Cowboys' defense can take credit for the Bears' strategy change that may have cost them the game.

In the second quarter, Dallas safeties decided to move closer to the line to "force" Payton, as defensive tackle John Dutton calls it. It's a defense designed to contain Payton. It's also a defense that dares the offense to throw.

The Cowboys wanted that, because they had seen in the pregame warmups that quarterback Jim McMahon's injured throwing hand was still bothering him.

The Bears changed their strategy at halftime. They decided to throw more. It didn't work. McMahon, who later left the game, threw 14 passes; six were complete, eight floated assorted directions. The Cowboys smiled smugly under their helmets. "It was a good adjustment," Dutton said. "I don't know why we didn't try it sooner."

Adapting may be the Cowboys' greatest strength. In their first four games, the Bears' defense gave up an average of 67 yards rushing. It didn't take the Cowboys long to see, in the words of Coach Tom Landry, that the "running game wasn't going to go good against this team."

So Hogeboom, who beat out Danny White in the preseason, threw. Twenty-nine times in all, completing 18 for 265 yards, including a 68-yard screen for a touchdown to Dorsett in the first quarter.

"It was the passes, the long yardage, that got us in good field position," Landry said. With the help of former Chicago head coach Neill Armstrong, now a Dallas assistant, the Cowboys consistently threw to their backs or tight ends, who more often than not slipped past linebackers for good gains.

And the Dallas passing game may be getting better. Yesterday, doctors cleared wide receiver Tony Hill to take part in noncontact drills, moving him a step closer to returning to the lineup. Hill suffered a separated shoulder in Dallas' opening game and was expected to miss about six games.

On Oct. 14, the Cowboys play the Redskins at RFK Stadium. Already, the Redskins have a reason to worry. Landry was asked the significance of this game. It was an easy question to answer. "This was an important game for us to win because we're just gaining confidence," he said.

For every opponent, that's a scary thought.