Separation among top contenders starts to crystallize

Sheldon Kopp was a psychotherapist and author, who once suggested, "Each person's only hope for improving his lot rests on his recognizing the true nature of his basic personality, surrendering to it, and becoming who he is".

Dr. Kopp was not talking about football, but clearly, if you substitute the word "team" for "person," you can make a strong argument that this quote applies to some clubs as we enter the halfway point of the season.

It is rather fitting then that Week 9 featured the first meeting between the Cardinals and Bears since we heard former Arizona coach Denny Green unleash his famous "They are who we thought they were" postgame speech in 2006.

As we enter Week 10, we can clearly make a case for some teams being who we thought they were, while some teams need to follow the advice of Dr. Kopp and surrender to their basic personalities.

So let's split the following contenders into two divisions: the Denny Green division and the Dr. Kopp division.

The Denny Green division

Indianapolis -- The Colts have an explosive passing offense, with Peyton Manning directing the ship with his usual precision. He is the MVP for the first half of the year. Manning has had plenty of support from the defense, however. Despite dealing with a slew of injuries, Indianapolis has allowed only 108 points this season (an average of just 13.5 points per game) and Dwight Freeney is the defensive MVP through eight games.

Colts know how to win

Indianapolis has enjoyed so much success over the past few seasons that it just has a knack for pulling out close victories like Sunday's over Houston, writes Steve Wyche.  More ...

New England -- With Tom Brady back, the Patriots are a team that can pass effortlessly, and their young speedy defense is improving every week. It seems that the Patriots' best football lies ahead. They will continue to be a very dangerous team moving forward, especially when some of their injured players return.

Minnesota -- Going into the season, the Vikings already knew they had a championship caliber running game, a terrific run defense and one of the league's best pass rushers (Jared Allen). The rebirth and reinvigoration of quarterback Brett Favre, along with the emergence of rookie Percy Harvin, have added a passing dimension that has made the team even better. Harvin has my vote for Offensive Rookie of the Year so far.

New Orleans -- Everyone knew the Saints would be sensational on offense and rival the 1999 Rams as the "Greatest Show on Turf". That they developed a defense to complement their offense, however, has been a surprise and allowed them to win any style of game. It has also helped them find a toughness, both mentally and physically, that was absent in past years. Sean Payton has made all the right moves and he is the Coach of the Year at the midway point.

Pittsburgh -- The Steelers have recently unearthed a rushing attack to aid their high-powered passing game paced by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Steelers could make a very strong case for being the best team in the AFC, despite their two losses. Pittsburgh's defense is still strong and the team's will to win is as passionate as ever.

The Dr. Kopp division

Atlanta -- The Falcons do have a sense of their own identity. They know they must play with a lead and win the time of possession battle, because their defense is not championship caliber. Being consistent on offense is the best way for Atlanta to improve and RB Michael Turner's apparent resurgence will help the defense.

Arizona -- Coach Ken Whisenhunt must have been reading one of Dr. Kopps' books recently when he announced that he was going to abandon the run game and just wing the ball down the field. The Cardinals are a passing team first, which then sets up the run. They know who they are and that makes them very dangerous.

Baltimore -- The Ravens now realize their defense is not only incapable of winning games on its own, it has become a liability. When the offense does not play well, the Ravens will not beat many quality teams. Baltimore needs to play great offensively in the second half of the season and hope the defense can come through in the red zone by limiting touchdowns. It is who they are.

Cincinnati -- I get the sense the Bengals know who they are. They are a good defensive team that is slowly showing signs of rediscovering its once-vaunted passing game. Quarterback Carson Palmer has improved each week. He appears to be making more plays with his feet out of the pocket and all indications are that he is finally healthy. If the Bengals continue to play this physical, they are going to be tough come playoff time.

Chicago -- When a team is down 31-7 and 31-3 at halftime in two of the last three games, there is plenty of blame to go around. But the former Monsters of the Midway are no longer monstrous. This defense stinks and the only solution for the Bears is to find one or two schemes that they can execute consistently. Right now, they try to do everything, but end up doing nothing.

Dallas -- They have found a peaceful functioning locker room, which is exactly what they were looking for when they dumped T.O. in the offseason. The Cowboys must continue to control the game with their defensive line, and before the end of the season, everyone will know nose tackle Jay Ratliff is one of the game's best.

Denver -- The Broncos know exactly who they are as a team and how they must play each week to win. They are sound in every phase of the game and force teams to prove they can beat them, as they will not normally beat themselves like they did against Pittsburgh. This Denver team is the 2009 version of last season's Miami Dolphins. They know who they are -- Dr. Kopp would be proud.

Green Bay -- The Packers have to realize they cannot employ five-wideout sets and need to sacrifice the number of receivers they send out in order to keep some blockers in for protection. It's impossible to win in the NFL with a bad offensive line, especially on the road. The winless Bucs might have given the Packers a much-needed wake up call. Is it too late to go back to a 4-3 defense in Green Bay?

Houston -- The prevailing thought for the Texans is to stay faithful to their system and know the offense must carry the load. Houston's best chance to earn its first playoff berth is to keep the offense at full throttle all game and make sure Matt Schaub stays healthy. However, I get the sense the Texans know this tale all too well.

New York Giants -- The bye comes at the best time for the G-Men, as they need to evaluate who they are and re-establish their identity. They appear to be a team that can accumulate statistics, but struggles to win. There is enough blame to go around, but they are still capable of winning, if they can just adhere to Dr. Kopp's advice.

New York Jets -- They have a rookie coach, rookie quarterback and many moving pieces. They need to stop all the false bravado and just realize they are a good team that is probably one more good draft away from competing with the big boys.

Philadelphia -- They are not a Wildcat team and they should forget the Michael Vick experiment. The Eagles need to realize that he stalls, not enhances, the offense. They are all about making big plays and getting a lead. When they do those two things they are sensational. They have to start games fast and pass protect extremely well.

San Diego -- This is no longer LaDainian Tomlinson's team. His game has diminished and the Chargers need to keep throwing down the field. They have gotten better each week. As injured players return (such as center Nick Hardwick) and others work their way back to form from injury (such as Shawne Merriman, who just had his second straight two-sack game), they can keep the pressure on the Broncos. Like the Patriots, I get the sense San Diego will play its best in the second half of the season.

Sunday's best

» Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner threw five touchdown passes against the Bears. Warner has made Arizona into road warriors this year (it is 4-0 on the road).

» Turner was sensational against a very physical Redskins defense. He has 317 yards rushing and three touchdowns in his last two games.

» Welcome to the win column Raheem Morris and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They gained their first win of the season against the Packers in rookie quarterback Josh Freeman's starting debut. The Bucs scored 21 fourth-quarter points to rally in the most surprising game of the day. Many Packers staff members have to be amazed and bewildered.

» Bengals cornerbacks Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph are two of the best and they shut down the Ravens' passing attack. Both should be in the Pro Bowl this year. Hall had his fourth interception in as many games.

Sunday funnies

» Eagles coach Andy Reid and his red challenge flag. Seriously, Reid makes more mistakes with game management than any other successful coach. He might want to give someone else on his staff the challenge flag.

» Baltimore's defense could not get off the field Sunday, playing 40 minutes and allowing the Bengals to amass 369 total yards. Cedric Benson proved that his last outing vs. Baltimore was no fluke as he joined former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis as the only players to rush for 100 or more yards twice in a single season against the Ravens.

» Green Bay's lack of offensive line talent is becoming a huge problem. Aaron Rodgers does hold onto the ball too long, but he was sacked six times Sunday and has already been taken down 37 times this year. He was only sacked 34 times all last season. It is hard to win in this league when the pass protection is that bad.

On the lookout

» He takes a ton of heat when things go bad, but Tony Romo has played very well since the bye week and his November numbers are outstanding. In his last 13 November starts, he is 13-0 and has thrown 35 touchdowns, with only 10 interceptions.

» The Chargers beat the Giants despite gaining only 226 yards and holding the ball for just 22:13. They found that their defense can make plays and the re-emergence of pass-rushing linebacker Shaun Phillips, who has five sacks in his last three games, has been pivotal.

Photo of the Week

Is this shot of Titans QB Vince Young taking a sack the best photo from Week 9? Check out the four nominees and then vote for the best one.

Off the beaten path

» Vince Young is a different player since regaining the Titans' starting quarterback job. He is poised, is taking the plays the defense presents and is making much better decisions. He looks to have learned from his time on the bench.

» Peyton Manning was 26 of 40 with 242 yards, a touchdown and an interception in the first half Sunday. Manning's 40 first-half attempts were the most since Rich Gannon threw 41 times against the Steelers in 2002.

» Wildcat update: The Dolphins used it 10 times, for 7 yards and a touchdown Sunday (Note: this does NOT include plays where Pat White was at QB, the Dolphins consider Wildcat plays to be only those involving direct snaps to a RB). The past three weeks, the Dolphins have used the Wildcat 31 times for 41 yards. It is dying a slow and very painful death.

Three-step dot drops ...

It is not official, but the Vikings and Colts have all but won their respected divisions at the halfway point. That's amazing considering that those two divisions at the start of the season were supposed to be the most competitive. ... What happened to the Giants' offensive line? Eli Manning was sacked five times Sunday and has been taken down 10 times in the last three games. ... Every time the Titans give the ball to someone other than Chris Johnson, the defense can breathe a sigh of relief. I have not seen a player like Johnson since Barry Sanders, who makes everyone else on the field look slow. ... The Ravens might want to have a tryout for kickers this week. Steven Hauschka missed a 38-yarder Sunday and is now just 7-for-11 outside of 30 yards. ... I am not sure how New England wide receiver Randy Moss can get single coverage in any game. Against Miami, Moss proved he can still dominate the game when he is singled. Getting beaten by the Patriots is one thing, singling Moss is another.

Follow me on twitter at [michaelombardi@twitter.com](michaelombardi@twitter.com target=).

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