The Chicago Bears have taken on the air of sultans, replete with swagger and sweat.

The Bears dismantled the San Francisco 49ers, 26-10, Sunday at Candlestick Park, reducing the defending world champions to a 3-3 paperweight and leaving the 49ers' nimble quarterback, Joe Montana, in a seven-sack heap.

Late Sunday, a reporter asked Montana if he had been hurt in the game, and the defending Super Bowl Most Valuable Player said, "No. The Refrigerator (defensive tackle William Perry) fell on my head, but I'm all right."

Just like that, the Bears are 6-0 and operating as smoothly as the Daley machine in its prime.

Ten minutes before kickoff, Bears General Manager Jerry Vainisi had said, "If we win this game, then we truly are a load in the NFL, and it means we have to be reckoned with."

Said Dan Hampton, the Bears' all-pro defensive tackle, "The only competition we have right now is ourselves. I don't think if we play our game that anybody can stay with us."

How is it that the Bears have taken such sturdy shape, so quickly?

First and foremost, their league-best defense of 1984 has become even better this season with ball-hawking rogues named Fencik, Dent, Singletary and Hampton. Sure, all-pro safety Todd Bell and linebacker Al Harris remain contract holdouts.

However, as their replacements, safety Dave Duerson and linebacker Wilber Marshall have made numerous key plays and Vainisi says the chances are not good that either Harris or Bell will return to the Bears this season.

Of course, that doesn't seem to matter. The Bears held Tampa Bay running back James Wilder, the NFL's leading rusher, to 29 yards on 18 carries. They held the 49ers to 183 total yards, lowest in Coach Bill Walsh's six seasons.

And how about the fact that the offenses of Walsh and the Redskins' Joe Gibbs -- two coaches of point-scoring renown -- combined for a total of one touchdown against the Bears?

Then there is the continuing evolution of Coach Mike Ditka, now in his fourth season. Only two years ago, Ditka was so surly that he ordered his special teams' hit men to "get" Detroit kicker Eddie Murray, whom Ditka thought was showboating. Another time, Ditka punched a locker after a defeat and broke a bone in his hand. (Today, Ditka was arrested in Chicago and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol.)

In the 1960s, Ditka was the favorite tough-it-out tight end of the Bears' founder and coach, George Halas. Nowadays, players and coaches say Ditka has lassoed his emotions. He's in control, they say, and winning helps plenty.

It is also irrefutable that the biggest improvement in the 1985 Bears, who lost to the 49ers, 23-0, in the conference title game in January, is quarterback Jim McMahon.

McMahon, who missed seven games last year with a lacerated kidney, has avoided major injury thus far, and the results have been overwhelming. McMahon seems to have reached a level-headed, big-play maturity, albeit with spiked hair and pink polka-dot sunglasses that make you wonder if he's Cyndi Lauper's big brother.

"The biggest difference in this team has been the maturing of the offense," Vainisi said. Suddenly, the league's top rushing game over the past two years -- which possesses the league's all-time top rusher, Walter Payton -- has been supplemented with a passing game.

It could be that the emergence of third-year receiver Dennis McKinnon has made a superior producer of track star-turned-receiver Willie Gault. Or it could be vice versa. McKinnon has caught half of McMahon's 10 touchdown passes, and Gault has four catches for 34 yards or longer.

Or, most likely, it has been the emergence of McMahon that has made superior producers of both receivers. Unlike his backup, Steve Fuller, McMahon can throw deep, and he can throw into the end zone, too.

Linebacker Mike Singletary said the turning point of this Bears season came when McMahon threw three touchdown passes in the third period to rally the Bears to a 33-24 victory at Minnesota on Thursday night in Week 3.

Jim Hart, a former Cardinals and Redskins quarterback who now does commentary on radio for Bears games, recalled, "Jim was hurt, and nobody expected him to play that night.

"His first pass goes for a touchdown. His second pass goes for a touchdown, and his third pass should have gone for a touchdown.

"He's a Billy Kilmer type. He's brash like Billy. He's got guts like Billy. And he throws a better spiral."

Quarterback has been like a hole in the middle of the Bears' doughnut for years. A franchise full of guys named Butkus, Sayers and Payton went 21 years without winning a playoff game, because, in large part, of ineffective passers.

Payton is the player carrying the tradition, if not always the football. He has been compared with the Cubs' Ernie Banks in that he has spent much of his career as a superstar surrounded by non-superstars. Since Payton arrived in 1975, the Bears are 77-76.

Although Payton has averaged just 70 yards rushing per game this season, it was he who carried the ball 18 times for 88 yards in the second half Sunday. He finished with 132 yards rushing and scored the game-breaking 17-yard touchdown with less than four minutes left.

These proud Bears talk with puffed chests of McMahon's toughness, rookie kicker Kevin Butler's accuracy (14 for 18 in field goal tries) and of the defense's indomitable will. But they love to talk most about Payton's smarts.

In a game earlier this season, Payton walked off the field, apparently suffering from an eye injury. The trainer looked at his eye as he helped Payton off the field.

Only much later was it learned that Payton had injured his ribs -- not his eye -- and that he was play-acting so the opposing defense wouldn't zero in on his ribs when he returned to the game.

And you thought this guy could only run, catch, pass and block? Thinks with the best of them, too.