If the Chicago Bears ever beat around the bush, only a twig will be left.

The supremely confident, 17-1 Bears, the first team in National Football League history to shut out consecutive playoff opponents, think they will win Super Bowl XX Jan. 26 against the New England Patriots.

So, being the Bears, they said so this afternoon.

"I would be foolish if I stood up here and didn't tell you I think we're gonna win the game," said Coach Mike Ditka, who brought the Bears to their first Super Bowl in his fourth season as head coach.

"I look at this team and I really love what I see."

"No one can beat us unless we beat ourselves," said wide receiver Willie Gault, who caught his first touchdown pass since Week 3 of the season in the Bears' 24-0 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC championship game.

"The end result is that no one can control us on Sunday."

The Bears say they are on a "mission" -- if not from God, from George Halas, their beloved founder, who died two years ago but still is discussed about as often as Jim McMahon's headbands.

The Bears' mission would have been full of vengeance had their opponent been Miami, the only team to defeat them this season. But now, revenge becomes a weapon in the Patriots' hands.

The Bears beat New England, 20-7, in Chicago the second week of the season. In that game, the Patriots had the ball in Bears territory for about 15 seconds: nine seconds on a drive that ended at the end of the first half, and about six seconds of a 90-yard touchdown reception by Craig James in the fourth quarter that took a total of 12 seconds.

Before the AFC championship game, the Bears had said they would enjoy a chance to avenge their only loss, and preferred playing the Dolphins.

Now, it should come as no surprise that they've changed their minds and say the Patriots are a changed team.

"We're not disappointed it's not Miami," Gault said. "Miami beat us, New England beat Miami and we beat New England earlier. That makes us even."

Although the Bears hardly fit the mold of a traditional team, they did their part today by praising the Patriots (14-5), who have stolen the underdog label right from under the Bears' nose.

"These teams are very similar," said Ditka.

"Their defense is good, our defense is excellent. Their offense is balanced . . . That's what I like about them -- they have balance.

"They can run, and they can pass from different formations. They can rush the passer, and they can stop the run on defense. And their kicking game is good."

While he was throwing praise around, something he doesn't do that often, Ditka remembered his defense. (How could he forget it?)

"I don't know if we can play any better on defense than we did yesterday," he said, bringing up the fact that Eric Dickerson gained 202 fewer yards Sunday than he did the weekend before against NFC East champion Dallas.

"We stopped the Rams on short yardage, we stopped them on long yardage . . . and we stopped the other guy with the Giants." (In the 21-0 NFC semifinal, the Bears checked Joe Morris with 32 yards after he had gained 148 when New York eliminated San Francisco.)

"It shows if you zero in on something, you can do it," Ditka said. "Buddy (Ryan, the Bears' defensive coordinator) says Eric Dickerson will fumble two or three times, and he fumbles two times (the Rams lost one). That's not bad."

About this time every season, one team or another starts getting to think quite highly of itself. The logical candidate this season is the Bears, who have held 13 of their 18 opponents to 10 or fewer points.

"If I remember correctly, they were talking about a dynasty out on the West Coast somewhere last year," Ditka said, speaking of the San Francisco 49ers, last year's Super Bowl champion.

"I don't know if there is such a thing as a dynasty anymore. I don't know if you can repeat anymore. There's too much parity."

The last dynasty, Ditka said, was in Pittsburgh, whose Steelers won four Super Bowls. Asked how the famed Steel Curtain compares with his defense, Ditka said, "personnelwise, there's a lot of the same kind of people."

The Bears enter the 13 days before Super Bowl XX with a decidedly blue-collar attitude. There was little celebration in their locker room Sunday.

In fact, the only champagne in the Bears' life is spelled with an "I," as in Champaign, Ill., where the team will practice this week. They will use the University of Illinois' indoor facility to simulate conditions in the Superdome in New Orleans.

"The team is more confident than celebratory," said defensive end Dan Hampton. "You don't see a lot of people screaming, yelling and going crazy."

Perhaps the only sour note is the contract situation of Pro Bowl defensive end Richard Dent, who says he still is considering sitting out the Super Bowl if his demands aren't meant.

He called Chicago's $1.1 million offer over three years "still way too low." Dent is in the last year of a contract paying him $90,000 this season.

"I'm going to wait for the Bears to make another offer and evaluate it," Dent said. "If it's not fair, I'll have to make a decision. Right now, we're not close."

Ditka didn't appear too worried about this today. He has said he believes the situation will be resolved and Dent will play, but if he doesn't, "we'll still play the game," he said. "We'll put somebody else there and play."

Although it seems unlikely that Dent can be replaced even-up, the Bears have worked quite well on interchangeable parts this season. When linebacker Al Harris and safety Todd Bell decided to sit out the season in contract disputes, the Bears replaced them with Wilber Marshall, perhaps their hardest hitter, and Dave Duerson, a Pro Bowl selection.

The only injury of concern to the Bears also affects the defensive line. Some loose cartilage is rattling around in tackle Steve McMichael's knee, and, although he is expected to play in the Super Bowl, Ditka said he will require surgery in the offseason.