The Chicago Bears became the best team in football before the first quarter of the Super Bowl ended. Coach Mike Ditka knew they were the best in football when, the score yet tied, he told the 308-pound Fridge to try a pass.

It was the most blatant act of arrogance since Joe Namath guaranteed the victory that gave this annual exercise in excess credibility. When a William Perry twinkle-toes it out of the backfield with the football upraised, he is sending a message more than looking for a receiver.

What Ditka and the Bears were saying, in effect, was: "We can try any silly ol' thing we please out here every once in a while and still win. We'd like it for Fridge to throw a touchdown pass but if he doesn't, it won't matter much.

"The Fridge can throw an interception and we'll beat the Patriots; the Fridge can swallow the ball and we'll still win. Big."

Imagine any other coach pulling such a stunt. With any other defense except the one he has, even Ditka surely would have played it closer to his sweater. Led by a fellow named Dent who actually does that to other humans, the Bears are that rare team that can win and have fun.

Eleven defensive players have scored for the Bears this year. Had concentration been a bit keener, their defense could have mustered its third straight touchdownless playoff game.

Poor Tony Eason. He was under the weather much of the week and under Richard Dent much of his time in the game.

The Bears started terribly, with a Walter Payton fumble. With the ball, the Patriots tried something that seemed sensible to most everyone but the Bears. They tried a pass.

Being unpredictable, passing on first down, seemed the only way for the Patriots to pull off an upset. Except to the Fridge and his pals. To their way of thinking, it was early suicide.

"We just started laughing about the whole thing," Perry said. "That's what we wanted them to do, pass. They were playing right into our hands."

The Patriots were made to settle for a field goal after Payton's gift. Perhaps the Bears sensed then they were in control on defense. Whatever, Ditka turned clever with about 90 seconds left in the first period and the Bears at the New England five on second and goal.

His piece of whimsy was called "toss 39." The Fridge was to waddle to the right and chose among: passing, running or tilting the Superdome. Unintentionally, he tried the last option.

"I was hoping for (tight end Emery) Moorehead to get open in the end zone," Perry explained, "and if he wasn't open I was supposed to put it down and run."

The play lost a yard, The Fridge smothered by at least half a dozen Patriots angry the Bears would be rubbing their noses in the artificial turf so early.

"They said some stuff, yeah," Perry said. "But you couldn't put it in the paper. A couple of words were said; a couple of words were said back. That's how it went the whole game."

Most of the great thinkers in the NFL would have opted for some sort of rollout pass on second and goal with the score tied; all but Ditka would have trusted only the quarterback with it.

"I was expecting it sooner or later," Perry said, "but not right off the bat."

It was a wasted down, but not necessarily a wasted play. It said something powerful to the Patriots, and about the Bears. A heave by the real passer, Jim McMahon, fell incomplete and the Bears took a chip-shot field goal.

The Bears sort of shrugged: so it's only 6-3. Give us a few more seconds. Say, ah, 63.

In that amount of time, Dent had caused a fumble that Mike Singletary recovered; Matt Suhey had run twice, and into the end zone.

Of the Fridge, Ditka cooed: "310 pounds and blue eyes. Cutest thing you've ever seen." Actually, he's a kind of enormous camouflage. Perhaps the largest symbol in sport. By running and blocking and faking passes, he hides the fact the Bears are -- first and foremost -- a collection of fierce defenders.

Surely the best since Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain. "When we beat the New York Giants," Singletary said, "I rated our defense an 8 1/2. When we beat the Rams, I said it was a 9 1/2. I said in order to be successful today, we needed a 10. And we came as close to a 10 as we have all year. We're one of the greatest teams of all time."

Fridge could play quarterback now and then on this team, and it would win. Fridge could return punts on this team, and it would win. Ditka knows that, and celebrates it. Flaunts it even.

Papa Bear would love it. Monsters still on a 1980s midway. What could be more appropriate a few blocks from the French Quarter than a rather rowdy, rather bawdy team strutting its stuff?

Dent caused two fumbles in the first quarter, tipped a pass in the second and got at least half a sack in the third. For the first 15 minutes, the Patriots had minus-17 yards passing, minus-2 rushing.

Bright guys, Eason and running back Craig James. Looking eyeball to eyeball with Dent, Singletary, Steve McMichael and the other semi-zanies, backward is the only safe way to go.

"This is what you grow up dreamin' of," Perry said.

A modern Paul Revere would not have known quite what to do in the Old North Church. One if by land wouldn't do it. Neither would two if by air. Probably, he would have watched films of the Bears, staggered to the top of the tower and thrown up his hands:

They're comin' from everywhere.