Who we thought they were

CHICAGO -- It started with a sucker punch.

Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris foreshadowed a tough day for the Bears, punching Deuce Lutui in the face while the Arizona lineman was on the ground on just the fourth play of the game. Harris was immediately ejected. He was the lucky one. The rest of the team, and their fans, had to watch this nightmare.

I'm starting to think Lutui wasn't the only one the Bears suckered. We were all blinded by a team with high hopes, big dreams and Jay Cutler's rocket arm. Wasn't it all going to be different now? More and more, this looks like a mediocre team with delusions of grandeur. This isn't a playoff team. It's the kind of group that gets very important people fired.

If you watched this game at all, you know it was only as close as 41-21 because of two quick Bears scores in the fourth quarter. For the second time in three weeks, the Bears' defense was brutalized and the offense spotty. If you're keeping score at home, that's 86 points allowed in two losses to Cincinnati and Arizona. Even bad defensive teams don't get drilled like that.

"I don't know what the hell is wrong, but we got to change it," a reflective and emotional Alex Brown said. "This is the eighth game of the season. I know a lot of people would like to believe we're better than 4-4, but our record is 4-4. That's what we are."

Brown wasn't pulling punches, so to speak.

Not everyone saw the second half as Fox instituted its own ratings mercy rule. Across the country, the game was dumped in favor of Green Bay-Tampa Bay (a horrible Packers loss, which should provide some solace for the beleaguered Bears fan) when the second half started in Florida.

In Chicagoland, frustrated Bears fans from Algonquin to Zion must have been wondering: What did we do to deserve this punishment?

Unfortunately, Bears fans are masochists and likely wasted a beautiful fall day on a team that couldn't stop a backfield of Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus. Even the Bears' fourth-quarter comeback push was just another slap in the face to a fan base facing a miserable past two months rooting for a team seemingly at odds with its identity.

When the Bears lost to Cincinnati 45-10 two weeks ago, the defense owned up to their failures, but promised they would improve. Beating Cleveland 30-6 doesn't count for much, especially the way the Bears followed up that unimpressive win over the league's refuse.

Trading for Cutler obviously wasn't enough, because he can't play defense. The Bears' D has been living on reputation for the past two years as it devolved into a mediocre unit that can't stop the run or the pass without getting turnovers. The defense has had a few good games this season, but these last two blowout losses have been an eye-opening experience for players and fans alike. Lovie Smith put himself on the line by taking over the play-calling duties from his hand-picked coordinator, Bob Babich.

Smith's unit has been wracked by injuries, and this game was no exception. In the second quarter, safety Al Afalava and shutdown corner Charles Tillman left with shoulder injuries. Of course, they didn't do much to stop Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald and a running game that piled up 134 yards on 14 carries in the first half. The Cardinals led 31-7 at the break, scoring on all four of their red zone possessions and converting all six of their third-down opportunities.

"You have to get off the field after third down," Smith said. "We had opportunities, a lot of opportunities. We just didn't make a play."

Smith is going to get the brunt of the blame from many very angry, very sore Bears fans. With his laconic manner, Smith tends to rub fans the wrong way after losses because he never airs the team's dirty laundry in public. There is more than one fan who dreams of seeing Bill Cowher or Mike Shanahan in Bears blue and orange -- if not Thursday in San Francisco, then next season at the earliest.

Like consecutive red zone stops for the Bears, don't count on it.

Brown, the team's veteran defensive end, was emotional and downright eloquent after the game. Don't blame the coaches, he said. Blame him, blame the players.

"We've got to tackle, we've got to cover, we've got to get off blocks," he said. "We've got to do that. That's us. Everybody talks about the coaches. No, it's us, us as players. We've got to get off blocks, we've got to make plays. We're not doing that. I know of a lot of people say it, but right now we're not going out [and] earning our paychecks."

The front four looked like one of the team's strengths as the Bears jumped out to a 3-1 start. But since the bye, they've lost three of their past four games to the Falcons, Bengals and Cardinals, all playoff hopefuls. The Bears shot themselves in the foot with turnovers and dumb mistakes in a 21-14 loss to the Falcons. But in the last two losses, the defense has allowed a 61.5 third-down conversion percentage and 886 yards, including 397 yards rushing.

Getting burned by Cedric Benson was one thing. Letting Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells run wild (each averaged more than 5 yards per carry) is another. Maybe Harris isn't washed up after all, because the team seems to play pretty badly when he's out.

Harris, who wasn't available for comment after the game, was benched for the Bengals game because he didn't practice all week, and the defensive tackle lasted four plays in this game. Maybe Harris isn't the fearsome, All-Pro difference-maker he was a few years ago, but he's obviously valuable to this team. Those two games are proof positive.

"I'm going to watch it and I'm going to talk to him," Ogunleye said. "That kind of play is unacceptable. For you to get ejected from the game, I don't care what happened, you can't do it. You're a leader out there and we need you out there for the game."

Brown wasn't in the mood to be understanding.

"I'm not talking about him," he barked. "I don't want to talk about him."

The Bears' defensive performance in the red zone was worse than ever. The defense came in ranked 31st in red zone performance, and the Cardinals abused them inside the 20, scoring all five touchdowns and adding a 30-yard field goal from there.

"We're practicing hard, but not practicing hard enough," Ogunleye said when I asked him about the red zone defense. "We're just not finding ways to get off the field and make plays. People are just beating us, point blank. We're just getting beat."

Warner-to-Fitzgerald was just as potent as the Bears feared, as the all-world wideout torched Tillman for two scores before the corner left the game for good at the half. Warner was pretty clean, until a pivotal series in the fourth quarter.

In case you missed it, the Bears scored on a Cutler-to-Greg Olsen pass to open the fourth, cutting their deficit to 34-14.

The Cardinals countered by inserting the Human Victory Cigar, Matt Leinart, for Warner. On third-and-5 at the Arizona 46, Leinart got picked off by Zack Bowman, who returned the pass 39 yards to the Arizona 28. Three plays later, Cutler and Olsen hooked up for the third time in the end zone to make it 34-21 with 9:04 left.

Now it's getting interesting, right? A revival of the famous 2006 "They are who we thought they we were" game in Arizona.

It got loud at Soldier Field when Brown sacked Warner twice, causing him to fumble on the second. Arizona lineman Mike Gandy recovered, making it third-and-25 from the 5-yard line. Warner then hooked up with Breaston for a 24-yard gain, negating all those good vibes in a hurry. The Cardinals punted, pinning the Bears back to their own 15. And then wouldn't you know it, Cutler got picked off on third down when Earl Bennett cut off a route while the Bears' quarterback was scrambling. Four plays later, Warner to Breaston, 41-21.

"For about five minutes there, we played like we can play," Brown said of the aborted comeback. "We played like we believed we can win. Why we can't do that from 0-0, I don't know. But if we don't figure [it] out, we're going to have a lot of those games. We're going to have a lot of those games in these last eight games if we don't figure that out. We need to figure that out."

The question now isn't how good can the Bears be. It's how low can they go? They still have Minnesota twice, a trip to Baltimore and home games against Philadelphia and Green Bay.

"I told people during the week I wanted that Cincinnati game to be a learning point," Ogunleye said. "But it doesn't seem like we took enough notes in that game. Especially at home, to play the way we did front of our crowd with the C on the helmet. It's embarrassing."

The Bears have only two days to practice at Halas Hall before flying cross-country for Thursday night's game against the 49ers.

"We've got some soul-searching to do right now on a short week," Smith said.

"We keep saying go home and soul search, but there might be something more," Brown said. "It might be a little more than that."

A lot of people said this game would be the most important of the season for the Bears. It could be just the beginning of the end.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He can be reached at jgreenberg@espnchicago.com.