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Alex Marvez

Alex Marvez is a Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com. He has covered the NFL for the past 18 seasons as a beat writer and is the former president of the Pro Football Writers of America. He also is a frequent host on Sirius XM NFL Radio.

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CHICAGO

The Arizona Cardinals are flying high again. I guess. The Chicago Bears are in big trouble. Maybe. Arizona's 41-21 skinning of the Bears could very well exemplify how 2009 will unfold for two inconsistent, middle-of-the-road NFC teams. Or it may ultimately be remembered as just another rise and dip for two squads that spent the first half of this season riding shotgun on the NFL roller coaster. Don't blame me for being wishy-washy. Recent history shows these clubs are too erratic for anyone to know for sure. But at least on this Sunday, there was no doubt which franchise seems headed in the right direction. The Cardinals (5-3) played like the team that reached Super Bowl XLIII last season. Arizona rolled to a 34-7, third-quarter lead behind an offense that featured a mix of trademark flash — quarterback Kurt Warner threw four of his five touchdown passes — and an unexpectedly effective ground attack. Led by running backs Tim Hightower and rookie Chris "Beanie" Wells, the Cardinals had rushed for a season-high 131 yards by halftime and finished with 182. In comparison, Chicago had 26 rushing yards on a paltry six attempts. So where were these Cardinals last week? In a 34-21 home loss to Carolina, Warner committed six turnovers and the NFL's top-ranked rushing defense was gouged for 270 yards. Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt says his team entered that game overconfident coming off a road upset of the New York Giants.
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"We can't play three weeks good and have an off-week like we did last week," Cardinals free safety Antrel Rolle said. "We have to play more consistently and keep it together. We know we're capable of it." Cardinals defensive tackle Bryan Robinson used a literary reference to explain his team's skittishness. "We can be Jekyll and Hyde sometimes," he said. Like in the case of Dr. Jekyll, Chicago (4-4) can be very good one week and very, very bad the next. The Bears had rebounded from a drubbing in Cincinnati with a 30-6 home win over Cleveland last Sunday. But even the lopsided score failed to convince skeptics the team from the Windy City isn't full of hot air. Chicago proved it could play much better during a three-game winning streak highlighted by a home victory over Pittsburgh in Week 2. Yet if Sunday was a harbinger of things to come, upsetting the defending champions and losing to the runner-up will be the only time "Chicago" and "Super Bowl" are mentioned in the same sentence. Bears coach Lovie Smith, who also serves as Chicago's defensive signal-caller, hoped cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman could handle Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald in single coverage. Fitzgerald cracked that nut with seven catches for 88 yards and two touchdowns before Tillman was lost to a shoulder injury in the first half. Fitzgerald finished with 10 catches for a season-high 123 yards. Chicago's run defense was hurt by the early ejection of defensive tackle Tommie Harris for punching Cardinals guard Deuce Lutui. Chicago's vaunted special teams even struggled. Robbie Gould had a blocked field goal returned to midfield by Rolle, helping to set up a 43-yard Neil Rackers kick as the second quarter expired. Because of a shaky offensive line, Chicago has such little confidence in its running game and Matt Forte — a 1,200-yard rusher in 2008 — that embattled offensive coordinator Ron Turner opened the game with seven consecutive passes. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler and tight end Greg Olsen did their best by connecting on three touchdown passes, including two early in the fourth quarter that snipped Arizona's lead to 34-21. But any chance for a miraculous comeback was dashed when Cutler fired an interception directly into safety Matt Ware's hands. Warner then hit his fifth touchdown to wide-out Steve Breaston. That sent the crowd of 60,237 fans filing out of Soldier Field early to enjoy an unseasonably pleasant day that belied their team's dreary performance. "I know we're a better team than that," Smith said. "Of course, our play didn't say that." Ahh, the lament of every coach with a yo-yo team. All isn't lost for Chicago. The Bears have four NFC North games remaining, including two against division leader Minnesota (7-1). But their first home loss of the season has left Chicago little room for error heading into Thursday night's game at San Francisco. The playoff odds are much better for the Cardinals. Arizona benefits from playing in the woeful NFC West, where no other team is above .500. Just like last year, a 9-7 record could be enough for Arizona to win a second straight division crown. Whisenhunt had hoped Arizona's Super Bowl run had broken his team of some bad habits. For example, Whisenhunt points to this season's 4-0 road record compared with an 0-5 mark last year in non-division games. "We know where our focus has to be," Whisenhunt said. "Our team comes in with the 'us-against-the-world' mentality. It seems we play better when we do that." The Cardinals now must bring that same mind-set into University of Phoenix Stadium, where the Cardinals are 1-3. "I don't know if we need to wear different jerseys or what," Robinson said. "But we need to do something to make it happen." Whisenhunt is curious how Arizona will respond next Sunday against visiting Seattle. He acknowledges previous Cardinals teams "didn't handle success very well. Maybe we've learned our lesson." "That's part of growing up and becoming a consistent team," said Whisenhunt, who joined the Cardinals in 2007. "It's not something you can just say you're going to do. You have to experience tough things and go through some ups and downs. But the thing I like best about our team is that we do respond. Hopefully, we've learned from our last home game that we can't have a letdown like we did." At least the Cardinals learned from their 24-23 loss to Chicago in October 2006. Arizona squandered a 20-point lead, prompting a memorable tirade from former Cardinals coach Dennis Green. After his team snuffed Chicago's comeback attempt Sunday, Whisenhunt ended his news conference with a humorous nod to one of Arizona's most heartbreaking losses. "We didn't let them off the hook!" Whisenhunt proclaimed before smacking the microphone and walking off the podium. Whisenhunt had a smile on his face. We'll soon learn whether the Cardinals prove dependable enough to keep him grinning.

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