November 12, 2006
The Chicago Bears assumed command of the National Football Conference with a 38-20 victory over the New York Giants in a prime-time, nationally-televised Sunday night showdown of division leaders before 78,641 fans amid the rain and wind of Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
With the victory, the Bears, who had now won 18 of their last 21 regular-season contests, maintained a solid four-game lead over the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North Division while advancing to a conference-best 8-1 record and a two-game lead in the battle for top-seed positioning in the postseason. For the Giants, the 18-point defeat snapped a five-game winning streak, as New York fell to 6-3 but still retained first place with a one-game lead on the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East Division.
"We're probably going to have to see them down the road, so this was a great experience," victorious Bears quarterback Rex Grossman said in the New York Times. The fourth-year signal caller from the University of Florida completed 18 of 30 passing attempts for 246 yards with three touchdowns and one interception against the Giants and improved his record as a starter to 11-4.
The Giants would lose five of their last seven games to finish 8-8 while reaching the playoffs as a wild-card entry and fall in the opening round to the NFC East-champion Eagles 23-20.
The Bears headed to New Jersey after suffering their first loss of the season, a 31-13 defeat to the Miami Dolphins, a team that came to Soldier Field in Chicago with a 1-6 record.
Heading into the matchup with New York, Bears coach Lovie Smith, whose team would finish 13-3, win the NFC championship with a 39-14 victory over the New Orleans Saints at Soldier Field and reach Super Bowl XLI, shared his feelings in the Chicago Tribune about his team's initial setback of the year.
"Whenever you lose, and of course we haven't had a lot of practice at it this year, there is a sense of urgency," he said. "Growing up, I always was taught that if you win a game, you should feel real good about yourself. When you lose, you should feel pretty bad and want to do something about it. We don't like the feeling."
New York's initial possession of the evening ended when a 33-yard field goal attempt by Jay Feely missed wide right.
On the ensuing Chicago drive, however, a Grossman pass attempt was intercepted by Giants defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka, who returned the ball 32 yards to the Bears 1-yard line.
On the next play from scrimmage, running back Brandon Jacobs carried the ball over the goal line to help New York claim an early 7-0 lead with 9:55 remaining in the opening period.
Chicago, tied for the NFC lead in turnover margin at plus-seven, was able to get on the scoreboard following a Charles Tillman interception of an Eli Manning pass at the Bears 45. The cornerback, who shared the team lead in 2006 with five interceptions, returned the theft 11 yards to the Giants 44, which resulted in a 49-yard Robbie Gould field goal and trimmed the New York lead to 7-3.
A fumble late in the period by Bears running back Thomas Jones led to a second-quarter 46-yard field goal by Feely, which increased the Giants' advantage back to seven points.
"First off, you can't win football games turning the ball over," Smith said in the Tribune. "We talk a lot about ball security and, of course, taking the ball away on the defensive side of the football. A couple of games, we've done a bad job of that."
The Bears' running attack struggled in the first quarter, as Chicago gained a single yard on seven carries with four of those rushing attempts resulting in negative yardage. In the first half, Chicago rushed for 31 yards on 11 attempts for an average of 2.8 yards per carry against a New York defense that had given up an average of 63 yards rushing over the last three games.
The Giants' ground attack was led by 2006 Pro Bowl running back Tiki Barber, who rushed for 141 yards on 19 carries, as New York would log 150 total yards on the ground against a Bears defense ranked seventh in the NFL against the rush by surrendering 91.9 yards per game.
A 36-yard punt return by Chad Morton gave the Giants possession at the Chicago 31 and led to a 40-yard field goal by Feely to put New York ahead 13-3 with 2:21 remaining in the first half.
Chicago would then score 21 unanswered points and claim a lead it would not relinquish.
The Bears then put together an eight-play, 74-yard drive in 1:46 that was highlighted by a 26-yard run by Jones and culminated in Chicago's first touchdown of the game, as Grossman tossed a 29-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mark Bradley with 35 seconds left in the half to help narrow the score to 13-10 at intermission.
Chicago then took the lead in the third period after a six-play, 43-yard drive ended with Grossman's 10-yard touchdown pass to Mushin Muhammad. Following Gould's extra point, the Bears were in front 17-13 with 8:20 to play in the quarter.
Chicago was also able to capitalize on a sack by defensive end Alex Brown and a fumble by Manning, which was recovered by Adewale Ogunleye at the New York 21.
Four plays later, Grossman recorded his second scoring pass of the period, as he completed a 2-yard touchdown toss to tight end Desmond Clark. After Gould's extra point, the Bears led 24-13.
"Rex didn't start off well, but good quarterbacks find a way," Smith said in the Times.
Jones, who led Chicago in rushing in 2006 with 1,210 yards, ran the ball 12 times in the period for 49 yards, as the seven-year veteran from Virginia paced the Bears' running attack during the evening with 113 yards on 30 carries.
With just under three minutes remaining in the quarter, however, the Giants narrowed the Bears' lead to 24-20 when Jacobs scored on an 8-yard touchdown run that concluded a five-play drive – including a 46-yard carry by Barber.
"Big plays. We cannot allow the big runs. A lot of it goes back to us being where we're supposed to be as far as our responsibilities," Chicago defensive coordinator Ron Rivera said in the Tribune. "When we've got a chance to get them down, we've got to get them down."
The Bears' first score of the final period tied an NFL record.
When a 52-yard field goal attempt by Feely landed short, Bears rookie cornerback Devin Hester caught the ball in the end zone, feigned as if intending to possibly opt for a touchback, then – as the Giants relaxed their coverage – raced down the right sideline for a 108-yard score to help increase the Bears' lead to 31-20 with 11:20 remaining.
The coast-to-coast touchdown tied the league mark for longest return of a missed field goal set by Chicago's own Nathan Vasher against the San Francisco 49ers the previous November at Soldier Field.
"I probably would have downed it if I saw the defenders coming at me full steam ahead," Hester told the Times. "It seemed like all of them were walking off the field like the play was over."
In 2006, Hester would tie for the NFL lead in both punt returns and kickoff returns for touchdowns and earn All-Pro honors.
"We practice those long kicks for the same situation. But they just had a convoy going up that side," Feely told the New York newspaper.
A Chris Harris interception of a Manning pass led to the Bears' final score, a 2-yard touchdown run by Jones with 8:20 to play.
"I thought I had [wide receiver Tim Carter]. But the ball came out hot for some reason. That was costly," Manning told the Times. The third-year signal caller from Mississippi would finish the game with 14 completions in 32 attempts for 121 yards and two interceptions against a Bears defense which, going into the game, ranked first against the pass – allowing an average of 158.8 yards per contest.
Speaking after the victory, Smith told the Tribune: "We know it's a crucial game for us and a big game for the Giants, too. This means a lot because we both have good records and we're both hoping, obviously, that we're going to make the playoffs, and that's down the road for us. There's a lot of positioning."
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David Linden is a freelance sports writer from Milwaukee who has written features on the Green Bay Packers, Milwaukee Brewers and major national auto racing for various regional, national and international sports publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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