EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) – For those who have followed the NFL for a couple of decades, the mention of a big game between the Chicago Bears and New York Giants brings memories of a 1985 NFC semifinal.

It was Mike Ditka, Jim McMahon, Mike Singletary, Walter Payton and “The Fridge” in their prime against Bill Parcells, Lawrence Taylor, Harry Carson and the rest of the New York Giants on a frigid, windy afternoon that would best be remembered for a whiff by New York punter Sean Landeta.

It was a game between two great teams.

The Bears won 21-0 and went on to win the Super Bowl. The Giants got their Lombardi Trophy the following year.

More than two decades later, the Bears (7-1) and Giants (6-2) will be meeting at Giants Stadium on Sunday night in a game being hyped as the battle for supremacy in the NFC.

Is it though?

In one sense, sure. The team that wins will have the inside track on a first-round playoff bye and home-field advantage in the playoffs.

Is it a game between two great teams? Doubtful.

Halfway through the season, Chicago and New York both have issues.

While the Giants have won five consecutive games to open a two-game lead in the NFC East, the offense that features Eli Manning, Tiki Barber and Jeremy Shockey hasn’t lived up to the lofty expectations.

New York’s injuries are a bigger concern. Linebacker LaVar Arrington (Achilles’ tendon) and receiver Amani Toomer (knee) have already been lost for the season. Pro Bowl defensive ends Osi Umenyiora (hip) and Michael Strahan (foot) are sidelined, while linebackers Carlos Emmons (groin) and Brandon Short (quad), cornerback Sam Madison (hamstring) and receiver Plaxico Burress (back) are iffy.

“It’s disappointing because you want to go out there with your full troops,” Giants middle linebacker Antonio Pierce said.

“We have guys who have proven the last three weeks that they are stepping up. It’s another week where guys are going to have to step up. We’re going to find out this weekend what kind of team we really have.”

Until a week ago, the Bears looked like the best team in the conference. All that changed with a stunning 31-13 loss to Miami at home.

Turnovers by Rex Grossman and the offense led to all four Miami touchdowns. The Bears’ defense also is under a microscope after giving up 161 yards rushing to the Dolphins. Even Burress created a little extra hype this week, thrashing Chicago’s cornerbacks.

Some observers question the Bears’ schedule, too. The combined record of Chicago’s eight opponents is 21-35, with only Seattle (5-3) having a winning mark.

Chicago coach Lovie Smith doesn’t care whether anyone is giving his team respect.

“To be truthful, what can you put into it? I try to deal in reality,” Smith said. “The facts are this: We’re a 7-1 ballclub. We like our record, so I think we’re a 7-1 team. … I like being that way. I like being 7-1.”

Defensive end Alex Brown believes some people were just waiting for the Bears to lose to start their criticism.

“The questions other people outside the locker room have about us I’m not really concerned about,” Brown said. “We’re concerned about playing better. We’re concerned about correcting mistakes. As far as everybody else, we’re not concerned about that. Everybody has their own opinion. … We’ll play. We’ll see where we’re at at the end of the year.”

If the Giants are going to beat the Bears this week, Barber and the running game have to produce. The 10-year veteran leads the NFC in rushing with 803 yards. The offensive line also has to give Manning time to throw, especially with Toomer, the Giants’ possession receiver, gone.

There will be added pressure on the defense with Strahan out, Umenyiora doubtful and Short, Emmons and Madison in the 50-50 range.

“You know their defense is going to come in here with an attitude after being beat up a little bit the week before,” Giants tackle Barry Cofield said of the Bears. “We have to make a statement. If the opposing defense wants to make a statement, we have to make one, too.”

Despite the injuries, the Giants have only given up 52 points in their winning streak as rookies Mathias Kiwanuka and Gerris Wilkinson and veteran R.W. McQuarters have played well.

Grossman said the Bears, who have scored an NFC high 234 points, will be hard to beat if they avoid turnovers. They had six in the loss to Miami.

One of the biggest question marks for the Bears was the status of middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. He hurt his big toe in the loss to the Dolphins and his availability was expected to be a game-time decision.

The contest is the first of a three-game road trip for the Bears, who will return to Giants Stadium next weekend to play the Jets. The trip will end at New England on Nov. 26.

“We’ll just let the season play out,” Grossman said. “We’ve played who’s on our schedule and we’ve played well at times and we haven’t played well at times. We’re going to get our chance to prove the critics wrong.”

AP-ES-11-09-06 1914EST



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