EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) – The New York Giants won their fourth straight game in what they love to call “Giants weather.” They might be better off without it when the Chicago Bears arrive in two weeks for what looks more and more like a showdown between the NFC’s two best teams.

New York’s 17-3 win Sunday wasn’t pretty – games get ugly when the wind is swirling through the Meadowlands, as it was Sunday, occasionally at more than 40 miles an hour.

But while these Giants have become better on defense – their traditional strength going back 50 years – they are as well suited for good weather as bad. An offense with Eli Manning, Tiki Barber, Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer and Jeremy Shockey doesn’t scare opponents in bad weather they way it does when it’s tranquil.

Just look at what the weather did to them in Sunday’s 17-3 win over Tampa Bay.

When Eli tried to go deep – with the wind – it lifted his passes beyond his receivers or spun it to the side.

Against the wind, all he could do was dink and dunk – screen passes to Barber or short flips to Shockey. Yes, he managed to hit Burress for a TD and a couple of other big plays, but basically the weather shut down a lot of his options.

And because Manning couldn’t throw effectively, the Bucs were able to shut down Barber, who broke one 22-yard run but finished with 68 yards on 26 carries. Change of pace: The Giants set up their final field goal by using the anti-Barber, 264-pound Brandon Jacobs, who broke off runs of 16 and 14 yards.

Still, they were a lot better than the Bucs, even without four injured defensive starters for most of the game – three who were out at the start, and a fourth, linebacker Brandon Short, who left early with a quad injury. They got solid performances from two rookie fill-ins, end Matthias Kiwanuka (for Osi Umenyiora) and linebacker Gerris Wilkinson (for Short) and really were never threatened after taking a 14-0 lead six minutes into the second quarter.

“We just were upset they got that field goal and we missed the shutout,” middle linebacker Antonio Pierce said.

Talk like that sounds a lot like those unbeaten guys in Chicago. The Bears beat San Francisco 41-10 Sunday in a game that might have been 82-0 had they not shut things down after taking a 41-0 halftime lead.

Nobody will score 41 points when the two teams meet in the Meadowlands in prime-time two weeks from now – NBC is already shilling the game with John Madden quotes calling them “the best two teams in the NFC.” That’s hype before the fact, but it’s looking increasingly as if it’s true.

Chicago is 7-0, two games better than New York’s 5-2.

But the Bears play in the moribund NFC North and have a schedule that almost guarantees 12 wins and probably more.

The Giants? They had the toughest starting schedule in the league – Indianapolis, at Philadelphia, at Seattle, Washington, at Atlanta and at Dallas.

They started 1-2 and were lucky to get the one, coming back from a 24-7 fourth-quarter deficit in Philadelphia when Andy Reid tried to sit on the lead and got burned by Manning, who completed 13 straight passes, excluding a spike to stop the clock. The Giants won in overtime.

The next week, they fell behind 42-3 in Seattle, lost 42-30 and Shockey announced they were “outcoached.” As they went into their bye week, the tabloids had blared “Team Turmoil!” and a season that players were predicting would end in the Super Bowl looked like it was on the rocks.

Not to be.

Since that bye, they have won four straight and allowed just 42 points – as many as they allowed in less than three quarters in Seattle. Meanwhile, on days when the wind isn’t swirling through the New Jersey Meadowlands, they have those formidable skill players.

OK, both the Bears and Giants have a game to go before they meet. But if either loses next week – the Giants host Houston, Chicago hosts Miami – it would be a shock, even in a league where little is shocking.

Chicago has been somewhat vulnerable on the road – they should have lost in Arizona and could have lost in Minneapolis.

Neither the Cardinals nor the Vikings is as good right now as the Giants.

Game on.

And maybe again in January.

Too bad for the Giants that wherever they are in January, the weather their defense enjoys so much is almost sure to slow down the offense.

AP-ES-10-29-06 1813EST

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