CHICAGO — Picture this town. Picture da Bears.
There are lasting images burned in the minds of football fans around the country of:
--A howling wind swirling through Soldier Field on a bitterly cold day.
--Howling fans, bundled against the elements, but still boisterous and belligerent, venting their rage and shaking their gloved fists when events on the field don't go to their liking.
--A howling Coach Mike Ditka, dominating the Bear sideline, quick to unleash an emotional outburst over what he sees as a bad play or a bad call, furiously chewing a wad of gum while fixing an intimidating, angry stare at the object of his distaste.
--And, of course, the Bears themselves, menacing in those black uniforms, the very picture of a tough, mean, unrelenting defense.
This season, however, the picture has changed. Ditka is gone after having prowled the Soldier Field sideline for 11 years. The only howling being done this season is by viewers watching Ditka on his network television job wearing those outrageous clothes.
But Ditka's departure will offer little comfort to the Raiders, who will play the Bears in Chicago this afternoon. The other images remain sharp and clear.
"It's not going to be easy," Coach Art Shell said. "You've got the Bears to contend with. You've got the weather to contend with. You've got the fans to contend with, as far as noise is concerned."
The Bears still play their traditional tough brand of defense. That's not surprising considering that Dave Wannstedt, the man who replaced Ditka, made his reputation as a defensive specialist, first at the University of Miami, then with the Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys.
With players such as Richard Dent, Trace Armstrong, Alonzo Spellman, Chris Zorich and Steve McMichael up front, and a secondary led by former USC star Mark Carrier, Chicago ranks sixth in the NFL in total defense. Dent has 7 1/2 sacks, Armstrong and Spellman five each, Zorich four and McMichael three. Carrier has three interceptions.
The glaring problems that have led to a 3-4 record and two consecutive defeats have come on offense, a category in which Chicago ranks last among 28 NFL teams.
There are reasons for that. The Bears had five offensive starters out because of injuries for the first three games. Wide receiver Wendell Davis is out for the season because of a knee injury. In addition, Wannstedt has installed a new offense that starts with a basic change in blocking patterns.
Is he disappointed in the overall results?
"I don't know if the word is disappointed, " Wannstedt said. "I'm discouraged a little bit. Like every team, though, we've had opportunities. We haven't taken advantage of them. Even if you put the struggling offense aside, the turnovers and, obviously, the sacks have taken us out of scoring opportunities that otherwise could have made a difference."
Chicago gave up seven sacks last week against the Green Bay Packers, has yielded 16 over the last two games and a league-high 29 this season.
That's bound to cause some salivating in the Raider camp, where an overpowering defensive line is led by Anthony Smith, who has 11 sacks, which ties him for the league lead.
On the other hand, though they would never admit it, the Bears might be doing some salivating of their own after watching the Raider running game, or lack thereof, on film.
Chicago, fifth in the AFC against the rush, will be going up against a team that has struggled all season with its running game.
The Raiders have lived in the air, where quarterback Jeff Hostetler has teamed with the league's fastest receiving corps, but died on the ground.
Last week, the Raiders lost to the San Diego Chargers, 30-23, despite a team-record 424 yards passing by Hostetler. That wasn't enough to overcome the Raiders' problems on the ground.
Today, an effective running game might be imperative if those winds are howling in Soldier Field, wreaking havoc with the passing attack.
Although he has insisted all season that he is happy with Tim Brown as his punt returner, Coach Art Shell has hinted this week that he might give Rocket Ismail a shot at returning a few punts. . . . The Raiders haven't played in Chicago in the regular season since 1984, when they lost, 17-6.