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Three Teams, Three Surprises

The Giants, the Pats, and the Bears halfway through the year

Marc Tracy
November 08, 2011
Eli Manning on Sunday.(Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Eli Manning on Sunday.(Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

We are now at (indeed, slightly past!) the football season’s midway point, and our three teams—the New England Patriots, the New York Giants, and the Chicago Bears—have all surprised, though not always pleasantly. In the case of the Pats and the Jints, the surprise was simultaneous: they played each other in Foxboro Sunday, in their first meaningful meeting since Super Bowl XLII. The Giants won, 24-20, to snap quarterback Tom Brady’s 31-game regular season home win streak and take a commanding, if not definitive, lead in the NFC East—despite being without their best receiver, Hakeem Nicks; their best running back, Ahmad Bradshaw; and several other key contributors on both sides of the ball (including their center, an underratedly significant position). The Pats still retain a share of the AFC East lead, but at 5-3, and with the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets (whom they play next week) looming, it’s precarious.

If this weren’t a season of surprises—the 7-1 San Francisco 49ers; the resurgent Bills and Detroit Lions; the extremely quietly 6-2 Cincinnati Bengals—then the Giants would be getting a ton of notice. They came into the season limping, literally and figuratively. Tony Romo was back in charge of the Dallas Cowboys (but he’s still being Tony Romo). Several folks thought the Washington Redskins, behind a strong defense and revitalized running game, would contend for the East for the first time since the 1990s (the running game never showed up). The Philadelphia Eagles were the League’s “Dream Team” (they’re currently below .500). By limiting mistakes, controlling the line of scrimmage, and getting, sure, elite play from QB Eli Manning, the Giants are 6-2 and looking pretty. It pains me to say this as a Skins fan, but they’re a great organization, and good on ‘em.

The Pats look like they are in real trouble. Everybody knew coming into the season that their defense would be sub-par—though maybe nobody predicted it would be dead-last against the pass—and assumed the offense that took them to a 14-2 record last year would make up for it. For a few games this was true, but the League’s defenses are going to school on the Jets’ expert game plan from last year’s playoffs and simply playing man coverage, dropping six and even seven defensive backs on most plays, which has forced Brady to throw 10 interceptions this half-season (compared to the four he threw last season) and generally struggle to move the ball down the field; the panacea of a deep threat is nullified by the Pats’ not having a single receiver who can effectively beat coverage and catch the deep ball, unless you count Chad Ochocinco, who has done squat for them. The Pats will make the playoffs—half the rest of their games are cakewalks—but against the AFC North’s Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers (and Bengals?), it’s hard to see them making a deep run. Yet again.

And the Bears! (Dah Berrz.) Last year, they may have been the worst 13-3 team ever, and so far, they are the worst 5-3 team ever. They seem worse than they are because of stellar special teams play; disciplined, conservative defense, manned by veteran Brian Urlacher; and a borderline historic season from pass-catching running back Matt Forte, who could very easily end up with 40-50 percent of his offense’s total yards from scrimmage all by himself. If they don’t make the playoffs, it’s because they are in the same division as the scrappily good Lions and the world-dominating, undefeated Green Bay Packers. My guess is the winner of the second Detroit-Chicago game (Detroit won the first, at home) will secure the NFC wild card spot that the Atlanta Falcons don’t. That game is this Sunday at 4:15 P.M. at Soldier Field. Tune in, won’t you?

Our record: 16-8.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.