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Call it death by a thousand tiny wounds, just about all of which were self-inflicted. The Giants did a few things right down the stretch of Sunday's showdown at Soldier Field, but mostly the Bears chipped and chipped and chipped away at themselves until they crumbled. The home team could have survived the half-dozen infuriating five-yard flags that flew at all the wrong moments. They could have persevered through the offensive ineptitude. They could have overcome the same stinkin' defensive deficiencies we've been decrying for months. But they couldn't survive all of them stuffed into one atrocious second half.
And so Eli Manning, who for a long time seemed to be channeling the haunted spirits of so many sub-par Soldier Field quarterbacks past, regained command in time to lead the Giants to victory.
Manning was so bad that surely coach Tom Coughlin spent some time contemplating the nuclear option. For the Giants that would be benching Manning and sending in . . . the heaviest quarterback in history. Back-up Jared Lorenzen set a slew of passing records at the University of Kentucky despite tipping the scales well north (topping out at 322 pounds) of most of his offensive linemen. In so doing he inspired teammates, coaches, fans and nicknamers. His Wikipedia entry notes that at various times Lorenzen, who signed with the Giants as an undrafted free agent in 2004 and has since worked his way up to second string, has been dubbed The Hefty Lefty, The Pillsbury Throwboy, the Round Mound of Touchdown and the BBQ (the Big Beautiful Quarterback).
After Manning threw his second pass right to Brian Urlacher and then digressed even further for most of the first three quarters Sunday, we at home were again left to wonder why on God's green earth did this charisma-challenged, ubiquitously unhappy baby brother shun sunny San Diego on Draft Day several years ago. In so doing he essentially engineered a trade to the blast furnace known as the New York sporting scene, seemingly the absolute worst place for this former University of Mississippi good-old-boy gunslinger to ply his trade. It still seems highly unlikely that Eli will ever lead the Giants to the Promised Land. But I suppose stranger things have happened - like a team amassing four takeaways to its opponent's zero and still finding a way to lose.
On to Sunday's lowlights:
* Overall, the home team blew a Giant opportunity to pull into a tie for the second wild-card spot (with the Lions and the Vikings and the Cardinals fascinatingly enough). A win would also have left the Bears only a game in back of New York for the first wild card. All that's left is cold comfort: whoever does win the wild cards will earn the right to be killed by either the second-tier division champs (almost certainly Seattle and Tampa Bay) or - in the event of a big ol' first-round upset - Packer or Cowboy juggernauts coming off byes.
* Even when the teams aren't very good, the top two media markets in the NFL and a start-time of 3:15 CST bring out the best in the booth. Joe Buck and Troy Aikman were on the call. I like Buck better on football than baseball (although I sympathize with the almost impossible task of coming up with enough compelling things to say to fill a four-hour-plus playoff game broadcast), and I have expressed my admiration for Aikman in the past. But he wasn't at the top of his game on Sunday. He parroted way too much of the same crap we've been hearing from poorly prepared NFL talking heads for far too long. The worst of the first half was Aikman's assessment that six-time Pro-Bowler Olin Kreutz, who has actually been one of the worst centers in the NFC this season, is well on his way to a seventh trip to Hawaii.
* Rex Grossman was not off to a good start when he flinched something fierce on his first play from scrimmage after (I think) hearing the crowd suddenly get a little louder (I have no idea why this happened but I heard it and there didn't seem to be any other reason for Grossman to have so visibly braced himself for a blind-side hit that never came). Then again the former Gator still managed to recover and hit Adrian Peterson for a big gain down the sideline.
* Then the Bears were running the hurry-up offense! And they attempted four passes in a row to start the game! Don't tell Lovie but this definitely didn't qualify as "getting off the bus running." Sure enough, all those passes set up a couple productive runs in the red zone (moving the ball to the five), which set up a wide-open touchdown pass to Desmond Clark. Blimey!
* Three times in the first half, Grossman took big third-down losses with seemingly ill-advised pocket retreats. But were those moves so clearly avoidable? On at least two of those occasions (counter to what Aikman was saying), there was clear pressure up the middle in addition to ends coming free off the edges. Twice Robbie Gould bailed Grossman out, nailing field goals that were double-digit yards longer than they would have been had the quarterback managed to just throw passes away. Brad Maynard, punting from 11 yards in back of the line of scrimmage rather than the usual 16, couldn't do the same from the back of his own end zone. In fact it looked like Maynard's punt actually deflected off a Bear blocker who had been pushed into the path of his kick.
The subsequent 30-yard wobbler set up the Giants' only points until halfway through the fourth quarter. The Giants didn't score for the rest of the first half but their rushing game did repeatedly gash the Bear defense to the tune of Derrick Ward piling up 104 yards on his first 10 carries.
* At least Rex didn't fumble the ball! Or throw an interception for goodness sake! He didn't even throw any passes that should have been intercepted but were dropped. What more do you want? OK, maybe if he could have hit Bernard Berrian on just one off those seemingly wide-open fly patterns that all went incomplete.
* And that spike that Grossman threw as the clock ticked under 30 seconds before halftime is one of the things that drives me crazy about NFL football. People! You cannot just give away a down in that situation! Come up to the line and throw a fade to one of your wideouts against defensive backs that are clearly back on their heels. They either catch it or it falls incomplete to stop the clock. If you feel you must stop the clock, take the timeout. Then you've got three shots (if you want, just keep rolling your quarterback outside of the tackle box so that when trouble comes, he can just throw it away) at the end zone before going for three.
* As for the second half, first of all, can we not have too much whining about how tough it was for the defense being on the field for as long as it was? The Bears rotate in multiple players at many positions after all and therefore should never be completely fatigued. More importantly, the best way for a defense to get off the field and therefore avoid fatigue is to make a stop, which they just couldn't do when it mattered.
* It looked like the defense was really going to take command in the second half, just like it used to during the Glory Days way back in . . . 2006. First, Adewale Ogunleye forced and recovered a huge fumble. Then Jamar Williams blasted through the wedge and right through return man Ahmad Bradshaw on the kickoff following Gould's third straight dead-center field goal. Mark Anderson assisted on an Anthony Adams sack and it looked like the Bears were going in for the kill. And then Peanut Tillman made another huge play, taking an interception away from 6-foot-7 Plaxico Burress. But then the big plays evaporated. And on offense, while Grossman wasn't great, a bigger problem was the fact that Adrian Peterson just could not break a tackle, even of the one-handed variety. And the next thing you knew, the Giants took a lead they never should have even sniffed and then held on.
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