It's time to wonder: Are these teams who we thought they were?


The last time Chicago played Arizona in 2006, we were left with former Cardinals coach Dennis Green's famous rant: "They are who we thought they were, and we let them off the hook."

Green felt the Bears were a beatable 5-0 team at the time, and his Cardinals almost proved him right -- before blowing a 20-point lead and causing him to publicly erupt afterward. Chicago went on to the Super Bowl, where it lost to Indianapolis. The Cards finished 5-11 and Green was fired. Still, the Bears had enough of an identity for Green to at least peg them as a team that "was who we thought they were."

The week ahead
Jason La Canfora breaks down Sunday's game in Chicago: Neither team has been capable of putting its best foot forward with great regularity. Nor has either been balanced on offense. Kurt Warner is coming off a five-interception outing, while Jay Cutler has turned it over far too much this season. More Week 9 storylines ...

» Who do the experts pick in Week 9?

Can you say that about Chicago or Arizona now? They meet this weekend for the first time since Green's classic postgame outburst, and neither team has proven midway through the season they are on a playoff track -- or that they aren't.

They're both 4-3, but neither has established itself as defensively threatening or offensively consistent. Three of the Bears' victories are over Detroit, Cleveland and Seattle, opponents who've registered wins on a lot of other teams' dockets as well. Yet, Chicago (tied with Green Bay for second in the NFC North behind Minnesota) beat the Steelers and gave the Falcons -- another team that's impossible to peg -- all they could handle in Atlanta.

Arizona, meanwhile, leads the nobody-really-wants-to-win-the NFC West by a game over San Francisco. The defending NFC champs are 1-2 at home. But after winning three games in a row are feeling as if they were set to make a run, they got housed by a wobbly Carolina team Sunday that capitalized on five Kurt Warner picks and gashed the Cardinals by running the ball.

This game at Chicago could be interesting. The Bears haven't lost at home. Arizona is unbeaten in three road games. Something's got to give. With these teams, however, a tie isn't out of the question.

The Bears and Cardinals are just two teams going into the weekend trying to figure out who and what they are, and in which direction they are headed. They, like others, have the good fortune of having time to gain traction -- as Arizona did last season en route to the Super Bowl -- and build up the needed head of steam to push into and through postseason play.

Then again, they also have time to develop an identity as underachieving, health-depraved or outright disappointing teams that end up as what they or others didn't quite think they would be.

Green Bay Packers

Following Sunday's loss to Minnesota, Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson said the Packers (4-3) might simply be a middle-of-the-pack team that can't play with the big boys. They've beaten Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis and Cleveland, lost to Minnesota twice and Cincinnati, providing evidence to Woodson's theory.

Defensive end Cullen Jenkins complained that the 3-4 scheme is hindering certain players (him, outside linebacker Aaron Kampman) and implied that several of his defensive teammates are no satisfied with the change. To that point, the Packers were 6-10 last season playing a 4-3 and the defense was a big reason why, so something had to change. Players will be next if things don't improve.

If the talented Packers stand any chance of getting into the playoff picture over the final nine games, they need to fix an offensive line that has been little more than a speed bump for pass rushers to pummel QB Aaron Rodgers (sacked a league-high 31 times). Veteran tackles Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton seemingly will be inserted back into the starting lineup, and that should help. Rodgers also needs to get rid of the ball sooner. He's inviting some of the hits he's taking by thinking he's got five seconds to throw all the time.

As crazy as it sounds, Sunday's game at winless Tampa Bay is a must-win for Green Bay. The Packers have to re-gain some confidence because six of their final eight games come against Dallas, San Francisco, Baltimore, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Arizona.

If Green Bay is what Woodson thinks they've been, that spells about 9-7 -- at best.

Bill Haber / Associated Press
Getting Michael Turner on track will go a long way to improving the Falcons' playoff hopes.

Atlanta Falcons

There were no secrets that at some point the Falcons could be exposed on defense, especially their small corners. That concern is coming to fruition, as they rank 31st against the pass. Where Atlanta unexpectedly (4-3) hasn't established itself is on offense, and veteran kicker Jason Elam has become a liability.

The running game has been hot and cold, although Michael Turner finally had a strong game (151 yards) in a tough loss to New Orleans on Monday night. Atlanta seems to be having a hard time adjusting to defenses trying to take tight end Tony Gonzalez out of the game. Quarterback Matt Ryan also is struggling, completing 57 of 110 passes with five TDs and seven interceptions over the past three games. More troubling, he's been sacked seven times the past two weeks after getting taken down just twice in the first five games.

While the Falcons should beat the Redskins (2-5) at the Georgia Dome, where Atlanta is near invincible, this is hardly a slam dunk. Atlanta hasn't held up well against physical defensive fronts and Washington is the third straight team Atlanta is catching off a bye (what schedule-maker did it tick off?). The results of the other two didn't go so well. If the Falcons fall to 4-4 by losing their third straight, they could be in serious trouble of even challenging for a wild card (the 7-0 Saint are going to be hard to catch for the division title).

This is a franchise that, since its inception in 1966, has never had back-to-back winning seasons. If they accomplish that but don't make it to the playoffs, it will be a disappointing season.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens (4-3) might be one of the tougher reads of any team in the NFL, but they also could emerge as a force if they build on Sunday's pounding of previously unbeaten Denver. Baltimore won its first three over Kansas City, San Diego and Cleveland then lost three straight close games to New England, Cincinnati and Minnesota.

There is no shame in either string of wins and losses.

They've been dominant offensively at times, but lackluster on defense and vice versa. That, in itself, is a change from a team that has routinely been reliant on its defense. Should they fuse both sides of the equation, Baltimore might be a team, if not the team, opponents want nothing to do with in December.

The Ravens have a fairly rugged next few weeks to prove themselves, starting with a rematch against the AFC North-leading Bengals (5-2), who beat the Ravens in Baltimore less than a month ago in the final seconds of a physical throw down. Bad penalties down the stretch cost the Ravens that game and they have been fuming since.

Following Cincinnati, The Ravens have Cleveland, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh and Green Bay to contend with. Should Baltimore come through that wash above .500, it will be in fairly solid shape -- unless it falls to the Bengals and fellow AFC North rival Pittsburgh in that run. Then, the Ravens will have no other choice but to win most, if not all, of their final five games.

New York Giants

All the talk about the Giants building their 5-0 record against questionable teams appears to have: 1) been on point, and 2) hidden some major issues. New York has now lost three straight against foes with some teeth (New Orleans, Arizona, Philadelphia).

They've given up 112 points over the past three games, including 48 to the Saints and 40 to Philly. The Giants' secondary remains a huge issue as does the pass rush. With San Diego coming to town, things better get tightened up because Philip Rivers and company can put some points on the board. Giants quarterback Eli Manning has been picked off six times during the losing streak and he simply doesn't look right since he suffered a foot injury, which preceded the skid.

San Diego Chargers

The Giants' opponent on Sunday is also trying to find itself (what else is new in San Diego?). The Chargers (4-3) have won two straight, but those have come against Kansas City and Oakland. San Diego has yet to beat a team sporting a record above .500.

This game is big for both teams because San Diego can't lose any more ground to Denver in the AFC West and it must keep pace with the other wild-card teams in the conference.

The Giants, meanwhile, seem to be under even more pressure. NFC East rivals Dallas and Philadelphia look like they are getting their legs under them and now sit a half game ahead of the Giants in the division.

The Giants also have, arguably, the toughest remaining schedule in the NFL, having yet to face Atlanta, Denver, Dallas, Philadelphia, Washington, Carolina and Minnesota. The Giants better find themselves quickly or those early season hopes could be painfully muted.



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