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Here's the biggest lie in play-off football: You dance with who brung ya...you don't get away from your tendencies...you do what you do best. The New York Giants danced with the other guy's wife on Sunday. They lined up in a brand-new defensive formation. They squashed the Chicago Bears' running game, and they earned the right to meet the San Francisco 49ers for the NFC championship with their 31-3 victory at Giants Stadium.
Here's another lie: You play 'em one at a time...you don't look too far ahead. Far ahead? The Giants began their preparation for the Bears on Dec. 29, the day before they met the New England Patriots in the last regular-season game. They began it on the plane to Boston, when backup strong safety Dave Duerson, seven years a Bear, four times a Pro Bowl player, sat down with tight-end coach Mike Pope and gave him the scoop on his former teammates.
"Mike's the guy who draws up all the cards on what the offense is going to do, so I thought he should hear what I had to say," Duerson said after Sunday's game. "We discussed the Bears' personnel, and I told him that if we were going to run, Richard Dent [ Chicago's right defensive end] was the guy to run at. He stunts a lot. The guy on the other side, Trace Armstrong, plays the run well.
"I'd like to think that what I said had some effect, because a lot of what our quarterback, Jeff Hostetler, did was 'check-with-me' play calls; he made his call when we got to the line of scrimmage. It was a good idea, because he could see if they were lined up in their 46 defense, for instance, with both linebackers on the same side, and then run at the weak side."
Hostetler's passing stats were minimal—10 of 17 for 112 yards—but the Giants' running game took charge in the middle of the second quarter, with New York ahead 10-3, and put the game away. The final tally was a thumping 198 yards on 48 carries, despite the fact that rookie halfback Rodney Hampton broke his left fibula after only two carries.
On Jan. 2, during the Giants' week off before the divisional playoff, Duerson sat down with defensive coordinator Bill Belichick and his staff. "For an hour and a half I kept saying, 'The run, the run, if we shut down the run, we're in control,' " Duerson said. "I felt that we had to get big people in there, to match their offensive philosophy with our defense, and then [the coaching staff] told me they were going to switch from our regular 3-4 to a 4-3 [replacing linebacker Steve DeOssie with 6'6", 275-pound tackle Mike Fox] and bring a safety up close."
Someone asked Duerson on Sunday if perhaps he felt like a traitor, handing over all that information about the guys he fought beside and bled with for so many years. "Not at all," he said. "I played there seven years. I gave the Bears all I had. Now I'm a Giant. I have no regrets."
Pepper Johnson, normally the weak inside linebacker in the 3-4, was the middle linebacker on Sunday, a position he had never played before. "My responsibility was to look for Neal Anderson's cutbacks," he said of Chicago's leading rusher, "but our two tackles, Mike Fox and Erik Howard, were doing such a good job stuffing everything inside that I wasn't in on a whole lot of tackles." The overall result was 27 yards rushing for the Bears, their lowest total in 23 years.
The Giants' idea was to force the game into the hands of quarterback Mike Tomczak, who has been starting in place of injured Jim Harbaugh, and the Bears obliged by stubbornly running the ball on eight of their first nine first downs (for a net of 16 yards), giving Tomczak a succession of third-and-long situations.