Injuries are mounting for the Giants, and the timing couldn't be worse. Sunday night they'll face the 7–1 Chicago Bears in a matchup of the NFC's top two teams, and they'll have to do it without some of their most important players. The Bears are reeling from their first loss of the season, and a victory over the Giants would be a huge step toward securing home field advantage for the playoffs.
CHICAGO BEARS (7-1) AT GIANTS (5-3)
(Sunday, 8:15 p.m., NBC)
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
The Bears have the league's topped ranked defense, giving up the fewest yards and just 12.5 points a game. Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera has installed a cover-2 system that takes advantage of the remarkable speed his players possess. Rather than assigning his players to cover a gap, they all read and react. The result is a bunch of players flying to the ball on every play.
When it works, it's overwhelming. The Bears linemen exert pressure on the quarterback, while the linebackers and defensive backs create turnovers. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris is an explosive force in the middle. Weakside linebacker Lance Briggs earned a Pro Bowl invitation last season and he's playing even better this year. Brian Urlacher is the team's emotional leader and at the age of 29 is the old man of the group.
Last week, the Bears were trounced by an inferior Dolphins team, and that game showed several vulnerabilities in their defense. Because of their aggressive style, the Chicago defenders were often caught overpursuing the ball carrier. They've also proven to be vulnerable against big physical running backs like Miami's Ronnie Brown, who pounded them for 157 yards last week.
That's a weakness the Giants seem capable of exploiting. Tiki Barber is great between the tackles, and Brandon Jacobs is perfectly suited to running against a team like Chicago. His best games this season have come against speedy defenses with aggressive schemes, like Indianapolis and Atlanta.
The Giants will have to run the ball well, because injuries are going to limit what they can do with their passing game. Amani Toomer came out of last week's game with a knee injury and he won't return this season. Plaxico Burress has been suffering back spasms that kept him out of practice this week, and while he says he'll play Sunday, we won't know for sure until kickoff.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
The Dolphins showed the world how to beat the Bears last week. Chicago's offense is based on a quick, short passing game that spreads the field. Miami countered by playing tight coverage with their cornerbacks, who made contact with the Chicago receivers at the line of scrimmage on every play to disrupt their timing and keep them from running their patterns. They also put tremendous pressure on Chicago quarterback Rex Grossman, forcing him to make some ill-advised throws. Grossman completed just 18 of 42 passes and turned the ball over four times.
Things got even harder for Grossman when his favorite receiver, Bernard Berrian, was knocked out of the game in the first quarter with bruised ribs. He was the only Bears receiver who posed a vertical threat and is not expected to return for several weeks. Without him, Chicago's offense suddenly seems very ordinary.
They won't get much help from their running game. Thomas Jones has averaged just 3.8 yards a carry, and Cedric Benson has only been productive as a short-yardage runner.
The Giants defense will face their biggest challenge of the season with at least three starters out and several others playing at well below 100%. The toughest losses will be at defensive end, with Osi Umenyiora (hip) and Michael Strahan (foot) both out indefinitely.
KEYS TO THE GAME The Giants need to attack the Bears on both sides of the ball, using their size advantage to neutralize Chicago's speed. Rookie Mathias Kiwanuka will be the key on defense. If he can't generate a pass rush the Bears will dink and dunk them to death. On offense, the Giants need to attack Chicago with their ground game, with Barber cutting back against the aggressive defenders and Jacobs running right at them.
Lahman's Pick: Giants 17–13
Stop the Run To Stop Brady
Coming back from their bye week, the Jets face their biggest rival on Sunday. The Patriots are trying to win their fifth division title in six seasons, and the Jets appear to be the only team that could stand in their way. Gang Green's 4–4 record shows that they've made progress from a year ago, but questions remain about their readiness to contend for a postseason berth.
JETS (4-4) AT NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (6-2)
(Sunday, 1 p.m., CBS)
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL New England's defensive philosophy has always been to bend but not break. That's why they rank in the middle of the pack in yards allowed (12th) but among the leaders in fewest points allowed (4th).They play multiple formations in an attempt to confuse the quarterback and create mismatches. Most often they'll line up in a 3–4, with the front seven focusing on stuffing the run and the secondary just trying to keep everything in front of them.
Injuries to their secondary are beginning to take their toll, and the Patriots are scrambling to fill all the holes. Strong safety Rodney Harrison will be out indefinitely after breaking his shoulder blade in last week's loss to the Colts. Free safety Eugene Wilson has missed four of the last five games with hamstring problems and is listed as questionable. So are starting cornerback Ellis Hobbs and defensive ends Richard Seymour and Ty Warren.
The Patriots rely on their pass rush to keep their secondary out of trouble, and if they can't generate consistent pressure on Chad Pennington, the Jets quarterback could be in for a big day. When these two teams met in September, Pennington threw for 306 yards and two touchdowns. Receivers Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery each topped the 100-yard mark, as the Jets scored 17 unanswered points in a furious (but ultimately futile) second-half comeback.
One big difference now for the Jets is that they have a running game, thanks to the emergence of Leon Washington. Since he became the starter, the Jets have gone from the worst running game in the league to 13th. Washington has averaged 85 yards a game since becoming the starter.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
You get the feeling sometimes that Tom Brady could win no matter who his teammates are. He wasn't happy about losing Deoin Branch and David Givens, but he's found a way to keep the passing game going with the cast he has been given. Veteran Troy Brown and journeymen Reche Caldwell and Doug Gabriel have filled the void, and Brady has an uncanny ability to spread the ball around. Last week, he completed passes to eight different receivers. The previous week, he connected with 10.
Tight end Ben Watson has become Brady's go-to guy. He's small compared to most tight ends in the league, but he has tremendous speed and can be a vertical threat. Teams have to use two players to cover him, usually a linebacker with a safety over the top. If Brady sees Watson locked up against a linebacker, he'll audible to a deep route, where Watson can get separation and make a big play. The Jets can't let this happen.
They also have to get better at stopping the run. In their first matchup with New England, Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney scorched them for a combined 145 yards. Unfortunately, that's about what they've been allowing every week.
KEY TO THE GAME The teams that have beat the Patriots over the last two years have done it by shutting down the New England running game and forcing Brady to force his throws down the field. The Jets do rank fifth with 21 interceptions, but the Patriots won't test them. Instead, Brady and company will stick with their power running game until the Jets prove they can stop it.
Lahman's Pick: Patriots 24–17