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NFL Preview - Chicago (3-0) at N.Y. Giants (1-2)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Mistakes have plagued the New York Giants throughout the early segments of this NFL season, while the Chicago Bears are off to a surprising 3-0 start largely due to their ability to take advantage of opponents' miscues.
The surging Bears will seek to continue their opportunistic ways when the NFC's lone unbeaten team invades New Meadowlands Stadium this Sunday to take on a reeling Giants squad aiming to avoid its worst four-game beginning in 13 years.
Chicago has been impressively resourceful -- and maybe a bit fortunate as well -- in opening a campaign with three straight victories for the first time since 2006, when the Bears went 7-0 out of the chute en route to a 13-win regular-season and an appearance in Super Bowl XLI. After an overturned call on a would-be go-ahead touchdown in the final minute gave the club a 19-14 victory over Detroit in its 2010 opener, Chicago forced three turnovers and got several big plays on offense to hand reigning NFC East champion Dallas a stunning 27-20 loss on the road in Week 2.
The Bears made a few more believers with Monday's gritty performance against another 2009 playoff participant, rallying from an early 10-point deficit for a 20-17 triumph over rival Green Bay. Chicago got a major spark from both its defense and special teams against the Packers, with return man extraordinaire Devin Hester taking a punt back 62 yards for a touchdown in the opening stages of the fourth quarter and middle linebacker Brian Urlacher forcing a fumble in the game's final minutes to set up Robbie Gould's game-winning field goal with four seconds left.
Chicago has also benefited from a more judicious approach from quarterback Jay Cutler. After throwing a league-worst 26 interceptions in a disappointing first season in the Windy City in 2009, the rocket-armed triggerman has been picked off only twice through the first three games while so far thriving in new coordinator Mike Martz's wide-open offense.
While the Bears have shown a real knack for producing momentum-changing plays, the Giants have been littered with errors and mishaps over the course of the season's first month. New York has turned the ball over 10 times during its 1-2 start, with three of those giveaways coming in last Sunday's 29-10 home setback to Tennessee in which Big Blue outgained the Titans by a 471-271 margin in total yards.
The Giants were also held back by 11 penalties, including five personal fouls as well as a chop-block call on running back Ahmad Bradshaw in the end zone early in the second half that resulted in a safety and an eventual nine-point swing.
New York will likely need to show better execution this week to avert losing three of its first four games for the first time since 1997, although the Giants went on to win the NFC East with a 10-5-1 record that season.
If some more recent trends hold true, the winner of Sunday's showdown could be heading towards big things down the road. The Giants prevailed in the last encounter between these teams back in 2007 and went on to upset the New England Patriots in that season's Super Bowl, while the Bears bested New York the previous year before going on to claim the NFC title.
Chicago holds a 27-19-2 lead in its all-time regular season series with the Giants, which dates back to 1925. The road team has won the last seven meetings, with New York scoring Soldier Field victories in 1992, 1993, 2000 and 2007, and the Bears leaving North Jersey with triumphs in 1995, 2004, and 2006. The Bears are 5-0 in regular season road games against the Giants since their last such loss, in 1969.
In addition to the regular-season series, the teams have faced off eight times in the postseason, with Chicago holding a 5-3 advantage. The franchises met six times for the NFL Championship between 1933 and 1963, with the Bears winning four of six. In the Super Bowl era, the Bears recorded a 21-0 victory in a 1985 NFC Divisional Playoff and the Giants returned the favor with a 31-3 win in 1990 NFC Divisional Playoff.
The Giants' Tom Coughlin is 2-4 against the Bears as a head coach, including 1-2 since coming to New York. The Bears' Lovie Smith is 2-1 against both the Giants and Coughlin as a head coach.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
The implementation of Martz's offense seems to have struck a chord with Cutler (870 passing yards, 2 INT), who's put himself well on the way to redemption with an outstanding start to the year. The former first-round pick is completing nearly 66 percent of his attempts and thrown for six touchdowns in the new system, while drastically cutting down his mistakes as well. Hester (6 receptions, 1 TD) and second-year pro Johnny Knox (11 receptions, 232 yards) are the deep threats in Chicago's multi-faceted attack, with the pair averaging over 20 yards per grab between them, with tight end Greg Olsen (10 receptions, 2 TD) and slotman Earl Bennett (8 receptions) serving as Cutler's safety valves. Running back Matt Forte (108 rushing yards) has played a major role in the passing game as well, having amassed 202 receiving yards thus far and hauling in half of Cutler's six scoring deliveries. He hasn't had the same impact as a runner, though, having averaged a paltry 2.8 yards per carry and failing to gain more than 50 rushing yards in any of the initial three weeks. A questionable front line could be partly to blame for Chicago's ground struggles and has been somewhat shaky in protection as well. The group won't have regular left tackle Chris Williams for a second straight contest due to a strained hamstring, though replacements Frank Omiyale and Kevin Shaffer haven't been much of a dropoff.
Cutler will be attacking a Giants defense that was ripped apart by the only top-tier quarterback its faced this season, when Indianapolis superstar Peyton Manning put up 255 yards and three scores on a sharp 20-of-26 passing in a Week 2 rout. It'll be up to ends Mathias Kiwanuka (11 tackles, 4 sacks) and Osi Umenyiora (6 tackles, 1 sack) to consistently apply heat on the Chicago field general and disrupt his timing, and for safeties Kenny Phillips (19 tackles, 1 INT) and Antrel Rolle (23 tackles) to remain disciplined and eliminate the big play. New York could also use a return to form from lineman Justin Tuck (19 tackles), a two-time double-digit sack producer who's gotten off to a slow start. The Bears don't figure to test New York much running the football, but linebackers Michael Boley (23 tackles) and Jonathan Goff (15 tackles) will surely have to keep an eye on Forte coming out of the backfield as a receiver.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
It's been another up-and-down year so far for Giants quarterback Eli Manning (810 passing yards, 5 TD), who's had his share of both good and bad moments in the early going. The former Super Bowl MVP has connected on over 65 percent of his throws and racked up 386 yards through the air -- the second-highest total of his career -- last Sunday against the Titans. He was also intercepted two times and has thrown six picks for the year, tied for the most in the league. The receiving corps of top target Steve Smith (18 tackles) and youngsters Hakeem Nicks (13 receptions, 4 TD) and Mario Manningham (14 receptions, 238 yards, 1 TD) has displayed some inconsistency as well, particularly with drops, while aging tackles David Diehl and Kareem McKenzie haven't helped Manning's cause with their deficiencies in protection. The struggling front line will also be without its anchor for a second straight week, with two-time Pro Bowl center Shaun O'Hara dealing with a degenerative condition in his left ankle. The Giants were still able to run the ball effectively in his absence, with Bradshaw (253 rushing yards, 2 TD, 7 receptions) gaining 88 yards with a touchdown on 15 attempts while adding another 30 yards on five catches.
The Giants will need to shore up their blocking issues to order to obtain success on Sunday, with the Bears possessing one of the game's elite pass rushers in All-Pro end Julius Peppers (3 tackles, 1 sack). The free-agent acquisition made a huge impact in Monday's victory with a couple of second- half plays, drawing a holding penalty that negated a Packers touchdown and blocking a field-goal attempt on the subsequent snap. Though the Bears failed to record a sack of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, both Peppers and counterpart Mark Anderson (5 tackles) were able to get consistent pressure. The pair will be counted on to do so again this weekend, as the Giants' deep group of receivers will pose a challenge to cornerbacks Charles Tillman (17 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PD) and Zackary Bowman (17 tackles). Bradshaw should face a stern test as well, however, from a Chicago defense that's yielding a minuscule 39.7 rushing yards per game (1st overall) on the year. Urlacher (25 tackles, 1 sack) and weakside linebacker Lance Briggs (25 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PD), a tandem with 11 Pro Bowl citations between them, have been flying to the football all throughout the season's first month.
Cutler's solid play and the Bears' air-it-out philosophy have made the once- maligned quarterback a desirable fantasy player once again, one who should be started with confidence. The trick is figuring out which Chicago receiver to use on an offense that spreads it around quite well. Knox has been the most consistent of the Bears wideouts but has no touchdowns, while Hester only gets a thumbs-up in leagues that count return yardage. Olsen is a pretty solid choice at tight end, and Forte's receiving skills compensate for his lack of production on the ground. While Manning's interceptions are a bit worrisome, he'll be throwing a lot on Sunday with the Bears likely to neutralize the running game, and seems to be in a good spot. Bradshaw's still worth using as the Giants' clear-cut primary ball-carrier, though optimism should be tempered in a matchup with a tough defense. New York's top three receivers -- Steve Smith, Nicks and Manningham -- have all done enough to warrant starting consideration. Chicago has the better fantasy defense of the two for this week, given the Giants' recent propensity for turnovers.
Cutler has been marvelous and Chicago's defense is indeed for real, but there's still reason to remain a little skeptical of a team that's pulled out two of its three wins by the skin of its teeth. The Giants are a very beatable foe at the moment, though, with turnover problems on offense, a defense that's been decent but unspectacular and having their composure come unglued at times. New York gets a real wake-up call here, however, as an undefeated opponent and the bitter taste from last weekend's performance should serve as a rallying cry for a team that needs a win. Manning's going to have to outplay his fellow quarterback in order to get it done, but the feeling here is Cutler's going to have one or two moments where he reverts to his careless 2009 form.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Giants 24, Bears 23
09/30 18:00:27 ET
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