A Giant Showdown
Having said that, the Giants are the best team the Bears have played so far this season. And they face off in the Meadowlands, which anecdotally at least, is a very tough place to play. Their offense is almost as good as the Bears' vaunted defense. And the Giants' much maligned defense is better than the Bears' offense, which is now below league average efficiency on the year. In fact, the Bears' greatest advantage in a close game could be its special teams, which despite Devin Hester's troubles holding onto the ball last week, remain the best in the league.
Both teams are without weapons because of injuries. The Bears will be missing Bernard Berrian in all likelihood, while the Giants' Amani Toomer is out for the year. The Giants are fifth in the league against the pass. They do a great job against second and third wideouts, as well as against running backs. They're not as strong against number one wideouts and tightends. The Bears are number two against the pass overall, but they too are most vulnerable to number one wide receivers and tightends.
Surprisingly, if each team's passing attack is reduced to one wideout and one tightend -- by injuries and defensive strengths -- that favors the Bears. I was shocked when I looked at Football Outsiders' stats, but so far this year, Muhsin Muhammad has been better than Plaxico Burress, and Desmond Clark has been better than Jeremy Shockey. Don't let name recognition fool you. Muhammad has caught 55% of the 62 passes directed his way for 443 yards and three touchdowns. Burress has caught 55% of the 56 passes directed his way for 510 yards and five touchdowns. Neither guy has been a true number one -- in fact, Toomer was outperforming Burress -- but because the Bears use him more, and on more high leverage plays, Muhammad is closer to being a number one than Burress. Similarly, Clark has outperformed Shockey. Clark has caught 60% of the 48 passes sent his way for 429 yards and three touchdowns. Shockey has caught 61% of the 51 passes sent his way for 306 yards and five touchdowns. Given the nature of the two defenses, neither team loses as much as you'd think without its second wideout, and the Bears are at least as well equipped to attack the Giants' defense as vice-versa.
Furthermore, conventional wisdom is that the Bears' Achilles heal is Rex Grossman's tendency to turn the ball over against pressure. Defensive injuries could have more of an impact than the offensive losses. The Giants are only 12th in the league in adjusted sack rate to begin with, and they're missing both starting defensive ends. Overall, the Bears' offensive line has been able to protect Grossman, and they should be able to again on Sunday.
Similarly, the Giants' greatest strength is Tiki Barber, who has been the best running back in football this year. He has 172 runs for 834 yards. He also has caught 76% of the 42 passes thrown his way for 282 yards. While the Bears do a great job of taking away passes to the running back, it will be interesting to see if that remains a strength if Brian Urlacher is slowed by his toe. And, the Bears have seemed more vulnerable to the run since Mike Brown went down.
We're looking at a pretty even match-up here. The injuries should balance out. The losses on the offensive side shouldn't have too much of an impact; the losses on the defensive side could undermine both squads more than many are anticipating. In a close game, special teams can make a difference, and the Bears have an advantage. Neither team offers much in the kick return game, but the Bears could really pin the Giants deep with their top ranked kick coverage unit. Also, both teams are average in punt coverage, but the Bears could get some short fields with their top ranked punt return unit. Finally, if the game comes down to a late field goal battle, the Bears' have had the best field goal kicker in the business this year. The Giants have been below average.
The Giants have been pretty consistent this year. We know what we're going to get. The Bears on the other hand have the second biggest performance variance of any team in the league. Play like they did against Arizona, Miami, or even the Vikings, and the Bears get beaten. Play like they did in their other five games, and the Bears win. I'm guessing the Bears play one of their better games, and win a close one.