The Giants’ playoff path, starting Sunday against the Packers carries with it a bit of déjà vu. During their last two Super Bowl runs, in 2007 and ’11, they entered as one of the NFC’s bottom three seeds. Multiple road wins were needed to advance before meeting the top-seeded, heavily-favored Patriots for the Lombardi Trophy.
Guess who’s No. 1 in the AFC this year? And guess who’s a trendy underdog pick to face them? The Giants, sitting at 11-5 enter the playoffs winning nine of their last 11. They’ve done it with defense, holding opponents to an NFC-best 17.8 points per game while building the offense around Pro Bowl receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Key pieces of past championship runs, like quarterback Eli Manning, will remind this team you can win three straight road games and get to the promised land.
Each time, during their Super Bowl push Manning and Co. disposed of the Packers. Back in 2007, Brett Favre threw two interceptions while falling 23-20 in the NFC Championship Game in what would be his last game wearing a Packers uniform. Four years later, next-gen star Aaron Rodgers was sacked four times, fumbled and saw his team get blown out at home 37-20. The quarterback will now look to rewrite history, bringing his team in on a six-game winning streak of their own to wrest the NFC North in the final week of the regular season from the Lions. The controversy of a 4-6 start, blamed in part on Rodgers’ poor play sits in the rear-view mirror; suddenly, a second Super Bowl victory for him and once-embattled head coach Mike McCarthy appears within reach.
It’s two red-hot teams, both capable of going all the way but only one will get the chance to extend their season. Can the Giants do the unthinkable and beat the Packers three straight games in the postseason at Lambeau Field?
Series History: Giants lead 32-26-2, have won last two postseason meetings between teams. Packers won 23-16 back in Week 5.
NFC Wild Card: New York at Green Bay
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 8 at 4:40 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Packers -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Aaron Rodgers vs. Giants’ defense
During the Packers’ six-game winning streak, Rodgers has put up MVP-type numbers. He’s thrown for 1,667 yards, 15 touchdowns, no interceptions while getting sacked less than two times per game. He hasn’t thrown a pick since Nov. 13 on the road against Tennessee and ended the year with a 104.2 rating, fourth best in the NFL behind Matt Ryan, Tom Brady and Cowboys rookie Dak Prescott.
Rodgers at home, with main weapon Jordy Nelson more than fully recovered from that torn ACL of 2015, seems impossible to stop. But the Giants’ defense will have to find a way. They’ve stepped up against some of the league’s best, limiting Dak Prescott, Matthew Stafford and Kirk Cousins to two touchdowns combined over the past month. Prescott especially was frazzled, enduring his worst game of the season as the Giants forced the rookie into two silly interceptions in a 10-7 win in Week 14.
Can they do the same with Rodgers? How do you beat a quarterback that simply doesn’t make mistakes? Part of that burden falls on the Giants’ secondary, forced to stick with receivers as Rodgers makes time by throwing on the run. Newsday reported this week the Giants focused on a “Plaster” game plan in practice, sticking with receivers during extended sets while assuming Rodgers would break out of the pocket. It’s not the running ability they fear but the extra time for a guy like Nelson or Davante Adams to break free and burn the secondary for a big play and/or touchdown.
The Giants, whose offense has struggled, would only need to give up one or two big plays like that to lose the game. Keeping Rodgers’ yardage down, limiting him to short throws while perhaps forcing one mistake would be considered a big win for the Giants’ D. They did it in the first meeting in October, with cornerback Janoris Jenkins intercepting Rodgers twice, although the Giants did wind up losing the game 23-16.
2. Which team can run the ball?
Both teams have pass-heavy offenses that somehow flourish without a top-tier running back. The top rusher for the Giants, Rashad Jennings, failed to top 600 yards this season and the team managed just 88.3 rushing yards per game, 29th out of 32 NFL teams.
The Packers? They weren’t much better, chugging out 106.3 yards on the ground to rank 20th. But with converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery, who broke out for 162 rushing yards three weeks ago against the Bears, they’ve got a much higher ceiling. Montgomery has helped jumpstart a ground game that had lost Eddie Lacy and James Starks due to injury.
Montgomery’s unexpected emergence out of the backfield provides the Packers with enough of a running threat to open the field for the receivers and gives Rodgers more time to operate in the pocket, which usually doesn’t end well for defenses. Another 100-yard game on the ground by Montgomery and the Giants are toast.
On the flip side, Jennings was outgained by rookie teammate Paul Perkins last week against the Redskins; but expect both to see a fair number of carries in this game. For Perkins, he needs to build on that 100-yard performance and hold onto the ball against a Green Bay defense that feasts on turnovers. The Packers’ plus-8 margin is third best in the NFC and they’ll look to build on that.
3. Which Eli Manning will show up?
In a game featuring two likely future Hall of Fame quarterbacks it’s Rodgers who has had the better season. But don’t discount Manning, 35, who has shined during the Giants’ two Super Bowl runs. In the 2007 and ’11 postseason, he combined for 15 touchdown passes, just two interceptions, and more than 2,000 passing yards.
Success hasn’t been as easy to come by this season, and for Manning to put his team in position to make another deep playoff run he has to find a way to get the ball to Odell Beckham Jr. In the first meeting between these teams, Beckham had just five receptions for 56 yards and a touchdown. The score came in a meaningless drive near the end of the game, virtually the only time the Giants’ offense was on the same page, as Manning was sacked three times and finished with just 199 passing yards in the 23-16 loss. That can’t happen again.
Both these teams are used to cold-weather climates but there’s a reason Chris Berman’s “the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field” became a national catch phrase. There’s nothing quite like a road team dealing with the elements of Wisconsin winter, Green Bay’s natural home-field advantage. Temperatures Sunday should be in the teens, with a brisk wind out of the west-southwest at up to 10-15 miles an hour. That should challenge the Giants and a guy like Beckham, playing in his first playoff game and having to face a hostile crowd.
Let’s just say it’ll be a little bit colder than Beckham and his fellow wide receivers’ off-day trip to Miami earlier this week.
Expect a close game between two teams that enter the playoffs red hot. Experience and history tip the scales to Aaron Rodgers but know it’s a virtual coin toss on paper. Either Green Bay or New York could easily springboard right through the rest of the playoffs and wind up in the Super Bowl and claiming the Lombardi Trophy when all is said and done.
Athlon Editors and Contributors Predictions
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.