New York State of Mind

If this game was indeed a battle to determine the best team in the NFC, then the Bears solidified themselves as a Super Bowl threat. After a slow start that had to make many Bears fans nervous, head coach Lovie Smith's crew turned on the afterburners and soundly defeated the Giants 38-20 at the Meadowlands. The Bears are now 8-1 and looking down on the rest of the conference.

Just call the Chicago Bears the best team in the NFC - and the New York Giants red-faced for falling asleep on a record-tying 108-yard missed field goal return by Devin Hester.

Hester fooled the Giants by standing in the back of the end zone for several seconds, then ran down the right sideline on his knockout-blow return as the Bears rallied for a 38-20 victory over the injury-ravaged Giants in their NFC showdown Sunday night.

On Nov. 13, 2005 - almost exactly a year ago - the Bears' Nathan Vasher caught Joe Nedney's missed 52-yard field-goal attempt in the back of the end zone on the final play of the first half and ran it back for a 108-yard TD return. The play helped Chicago beat San Francisco 17-9, and now Hester shares the record for longest NFL play with his teammate.

Rex Grossman threw for three touchdowns and Thomas Jones scored on a short run as the Bears (8-1) rallied from a 10-point first-half deficit with 28 second-half points in ending a five-game winning streak by the Giants (6-3).

Not only did the Bears win, they answered the critics who surfaced last week after Miami knocked Chicago from the unbeaten ranks in a turnover-marred game.

Grossman had touchdown passes of 29 yards to Mark Bradley, 10 to Muhsin Muhammad and 2 to Desmond Clark in leading the Bears to a 24-13 lead in the third quarter.

The Giants cut the gap on Brandon Jacobs' second touchdown run of the game late in the third quarter.

The game turned on Hester's third return for a touchdown this season - a most unexpected one.

Jay Feely, who had kicked two field goals, attempted a 52-yarder with 11:20 to play. The kick was short and Hester caught the ball 8 yards deep in the end zone. The rookie stood there for several seconds and then came out, circling the right side and speeding down the sideline almost untouched for a clinching score.

The teams brought two of the top defenses into the nationally television matchup that was moved to prime time by the NFL.

New York's 13-10 halftime lead was courtesy of its defense and special teams, with three scoring drives covering a total of 13 yards in winds gusting to 25 mph and intermittent showers.

Mathias Kiwanuka set up the Giants' touchdown with an interception on Chicago's first possession, returning it 32 yards to the Bears 1. Jacobs scored almost untouched.

The Bears' defense answered the next time New York had the ball. Charles Tillman, one of the cornerbacks called "average" by Giants receiver Plaxico Burress earlier in the week, intercepted a pass intended for Burress and returned it 11 yards to New York's 45.

A questionable roughing-the-passer penalty against Fred Robbins moved the ball to the 30 and Robbie Gould kicked a 49-yard field goal.

Giants safety Gibril Wilson forced a fumble by Jones at the Bears 31 on the penultimate play of the hour-long first quarter. Feely extended New York's lead to 10-3 with a 46-yard field goal.

The margin grew to 13-3 late in the second quarter. Chad Morton's 36-yard punt return set up a 40-yard field goal by Feely.

At that point, the Giants seemed ready to stake their claim to not only being the NFC's best defense, but also the best team in the conference.

The Bears changed the momentum with one drive - and really one play.

Faced with a third-and-22 at their 28 with 1:30 left in the half, Jones got the ball on a draw. He went 26 yards for a first down and woke up the offense. After a 22-yard pass to Muhammad, Grossman capped the drive by finding Bradley on a touchdown pass when cornerback Sam Madison aggravated a hamstring injury on a stop-and-go pattern.

The score got the Bears within 13-10 at the half, and they played like a different team offensively the rest of the way.

Jones closed the scoring with a 2-yard run with almost half of the 78,000 fans at Giants Stadium already heading for the exits.

Grossman, who struggled for almost the entire first half, finished 18-of-30 for 246 yards. Muhammad had seven catches for 123.

Eli Manning struggled against Brian Urlacher and the Bears' vaunted defense. He threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. He finished 14-of-32 for 121 yards. Tiki Barber, who sprained a thumb, led New York with 141 yards on 19 carries.

The Giants came into the game missing five starters and they lost two more: Madison and offensive tackle Luke Petitgout, who broke his left leg.

JC


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