SEATTLE, DEC. 13 -- Two weeks remain in the NFL's regular season, but a decade-long trend suggests Monday night's game in San Francisco (WJLA-TV-7, 9 p.m.) between the 49ers and the Bears is as significant as any contest that will follow in the upcoming playoffs.

The team with the best record, and thus home-field advantage, in the NFC has gone on to represent the conference in the Super Bowl each of the past six seasons; San Francisco started it in 1981, the Redskins in '82 and '83, the 49ers again in '84, the Bears in '85 and the Giants in '86. In fact, five of those six years, the NFC team went on to win the Super Bowl (the '83 Redskins lost to the Raiders).

The Bears (10-2) have won the NFC Central title -- for the fourth consecutive year -- and are playing to build momentum and gain home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The 49ers (10-2), on the other hand, have to win Monday or will find themselves tied with New Orleans (10-3) atop the NFC West.

The prevailing theory is that San Francisco is the hottest team in the league and has to be favored. Quarterback Joe Montana, with a career-high 29 touchdown passes, and wide receiver Jerry Rice, with a touchdown reception in every game this season, have given the 49ers the best offense in the NFL.

The Bears have a pretty hot quarterback, too, in Jim McMahon, but he probably won't play and certainly won't start because of a pulled hamstring suffered last week at Minnesota. So, in his place will be the world's most successful backup, Mike Tomczak, who has compiled a 10-0 record as a starter. And that doesn't include last week's victory in relief over the Vikings.

McMahon said he would rather play if possible. But Chicago Coach Mike Ditka said he doesn't want to risk losing McMahon for the rest of the season. Problem is, this game is for the season if the NFC home-field advantage trend continues.

But Ditka may be right. The Bears can't win by outscoring San Francisco and they know it. They'll only win by stopping (to a degree) Montana and Rice. And although nobody has yet, the Bears are capable.

A four-play, goal-line stand against Minnesota and the game-winning touchdown pass with 38 seconds left have apparently rejuvenated the Bears. "We have the spirit again . . . that it's going to take to do it," Ditka said earlier in the week. "Now, whether or not we can {win} I don't know, but we have the spirit. I was worried about that; I thought we lost it."

If the spirit doesn't translate into excellent pass coverage, it won't matter a little bit, because Montana is having his best year ever. Montana should finish the season as the top-rated passer in the league for the first time in his nine seasons. One more touchdown pass and he'll break John Brodie's 22-year-old club record for touchdown passes in a season.

All this, after back surgery last year that could have ended Montana's career and worried management into trading for Steve Young. So far, it's an insurance policy the 49ers haven't needed.

"Joe seems more on top of his game now than in recent years," 49ers Coach Bill Walsh said. "He might have lost a step running, but he's a better quarterback now."

Ditka simply says of Montana, "He does what he's supposed to do."

Not against the Bears, however. In three games against Chicago, including San Francisco's 1984 NFC championship game shutout, the Bears have handled Montana about as well as a defense can. He has been sacked 15 times by the Bears, thrown four interceptions to only one touchdown, and averaged 216 yards per game passing.

Chicago had a much better defense then. But for all this "what's-wrong-with-the-defense" talk around the Windy City, the Bears lead the league in sacks (56), are third in points allowed and can only be stronger with the return of linebacker Otis Wilson and end Dan Hampton to the starting lineup after missing three weeks with knee injuries.

The Bear teams of 1984 and 1985 had success by keeping Montana in the pocket with a modified pass rush and by wearing down the linemen first. Getting to Montana comes later.

The Bears have been this big an underdog only once the last three seasons: in the season opener against the Giants. Every time somebody tells the Bears they shouldn't, they do. But they haven't been told by Montana and Rice, just yet.