LAKE FOREST, ILL., OCT. 29 -- Jim McMahon was asked this week if he could explain why the Chicago Bears are so unbeatable when he's at quarterback -- why the Monsters of the Midway manage to play simply adequately when he's in sick bay, but out of this world when he's behind center.

"Only explanation I have," McMahon said, "is that they love me."

Oh, yes, the Bears love Jim McMahon, especially when he is healthy and playing, as he was Sunday at Tampa Bay where he staged one of the greatest comebacks in this franchise's storied history.

The Bears haven't lost a game with McMahon starting at quarterback since October 1984. In that month, they lost two games, but McMahon had a broken throwing hand. To find the last game the Bears lost when McMahon was healthy, you have to go all the way back to Dec. 4, 1983 when Chicago lost to Green Bay in McMahon's second season. For those counting, that's 23 straight victories in games he has started. And that doesn't even include Sunday's McMiracle on the Bay.

Tampa Bay was whipping up on the Bears something awful. It was 20-0 after one quarter, 23-14 by the third when McMahon came into the game.

It recalled the game two years ago in Minnesota, when the Bears were trailing the Vikings, 17-9, when McMahon -- who wasn't supposed to play because of a leg infection and sore neck -- came in and threw two touchdowns in two passes, and three touchdowns in less than seven minutes to lead the Bears to victory.

This time it wasn't so easy, but it was more dramatic. McMahon hadn't played a down since Nov. 23, 1986, when Green Bay's Charles Martin slammed McMahon down on his right shoulder, a vicious cheap shot that ended McMahon's season. McMahon already had a rotator cuff problem and this was the final blow. He had surgery the next month.

There were doubts McMahon would ever make it back. He has come back from three knee operations, lacerated kidneys and assorted other injuries. But an injury to a quarterback's throwing shoulder is different.

The Bears went on with Mike Tomczak (10-0 himself in starts) and tried not to think too much about McMahon, who kept promising he'd be back by mid-season.

"If you have a quality doctor {Dr. Frank Jobe, who saved Tommy John's pitching career} and you don't have any doubts about your ability to rehabilitate and work hard, there shouldn't be any problem," McMahon said Wednesday before practice.

McMahon wasn't ready to play when the NFL players went on strike after the second week of the season, but by the time the strike ended he marched into Coach Mike Ditka's office and said, "I'm back." There aren't any great tales about an athlete working 20 hours a day, knocking himself out in training. "Nah, I didn't do all that much during the strike," McMahon said. "I hardly did any running at all, just continued to work on my shoulder."

With that in mind, just how much could the Bears expect of McMahon when he entered the game, having had no contact in 11 months, no practice time, no time to even familiarize himself with the offensive game plan? Asked today to describe the toughest thing about coming back, McMahon replied, "Probably knowing your own game plan. When I know I'm not going to start, I don't get into the game plan that much."

It showed. On his third play against Tampa Bay -- third and eight, to be exact -- McMahon didn't see a receiver and started running up the middle. He was hit hard but he got the first down, then got up. And his shoulder didn't hurt.

After that, McMahon sputtered. Three sacks and an interception. He wasn't finished yet.

Chicago trailed 26-14, but McMahon completed six of eight passes for 74 yards and dove headfirst into the end zone from a yard out to get the Bears within 26-20. On the next series, McMahon completed all six of his passes for 71 yards, including a six-yard touchdown toss to Neal Anderson with just more than a minute to play. In those last two drives, McMahon's passing accounted for 145 of 156 yards the team gained. Bears win.

McMahon called audibles, McMahon free-lanced. McMahon didn't have time to fool around with plays coming from the sideline. "I told {Ditka} I was going to call all the plays," McMahon said. "I told him, 'Put in the players you want because they're not going to come out.' "

Did anything surprise McMahon about his heroics? "Surprised I didn't get hurt," he said.

Tampa Bay center Randy Grimes, half in admiration, half in shock, said of McMahon's performance, "I don't think it would have hurt me any more if my wife took my baby and dog and left me tonight."

Asked if he was surprised, Dikta said, "I'm not surprised at anything Jim McMahon does in life."

So again, the question is asked, why are the Bears 21-9 the last three years without McMahon, 23-0 with him?

Dave Duerson, the all-pro safety who gets to observe McMahon from the sideline on game days, called the team's reaction to McMahon, "a trickle-down effect. Jim's cocky and takes charge. That confidence is radiant and it trickles down. There's no question you can see it when he's out there. His confidence is expressed."

Players talk about McMahon being a linebacker in quarterback clothing. McMahon said that during his rehabilitation he considered changing his style, being less reckless so he might stay healthy for an entire season. "But when I get out there," he said, "instincts take over."

Defense makes the Bears a playoff-caliber team, regardless of the quarterback. With McMahon, Chicago is a daring, almost arrogant team that would just as soon beat you 73-0. When he's in, it appears the receivers even block better downfield, the defensive players get fired up on the sideline and everybody knows what that means. Jimbo Covert, the Bears' left tackle, says the team gets "uplifted" when McMahon is taking the snaps.

Nothing he does is especially esthetic. Not a great arm, not great speed. Too short, never in particularly great shape.

"The team plays hard for Mike," Ditka said. "McMahon's got a confidence that permeates not only through the players, but through the coaches. He plays like a guard or tackle. He has no regard for doing it the pretty way. On the touchdown {at Tampa Bay}, he went in headfirst. Nothing's changed with him. He's not going to do it the way you tell him or the safe way.

"I remember looking at him when I took him out of the {1985} Super Bowl game. He went and sat on his helmet. The pad that was supposed to cover {his injured} buttocks was hanging out. His shirt was out, tape was hanging off him, he was bleeding. He looked like a warrior. He probably plays a lot like Butkus did, I guess."

The relationship between McMahon and Ditka used to be strained. But now it seems as if there's a mutual admiration, at least from a safe distance.

Said McMahon, "I hadn't seen much of him lately, but I'd seen enough of him on TV."