NFL Playoff Preview - N.Y. Giants (10-7) at Green Bay (15-1)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - While a berth in the conference championship game is the main prize that awaits the winner of Sunday's do-or-die showdown between the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants from historic Lambeau Field, both combatants in this NFC Divisional Playoff may have a little revenge on their minds as well.
The Giants had their 2010 postseason prospects wrecked by a 45-17 thrashing at the hands of the Packers in their most recent stop in Wisconsin, which took place in the second-to-last week of that year's regular season. That lopsided victory also served as a springboard to Green Bay's run to an eventual Super Bowl title, with the team prevailing in six consecutive games to capture the Lombardi Trophy beginning with that result.
Green Bay also got the better of New York in a late-season meeting held at MetLife Stadium back on Dec. 4, outlasting the Giants in a 38-35 thriller that featured five lead changes and a combined 716 passing yards and seven touchdowns from all-star quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning.
That hard-earned triumph helped the powerful Packers claim the coveted top seed for the conference playoffs and set up the club's first postseason contest at home since the 2007 NFC Championship, in which the Giants foiled what turned out to be Brett Favre's final appearance in a Green Bay uniform by coming through with a 23-20 overtime decision.
New York followed up by bouncing then-unbeaten New England in Super Bowl XLII to claim a surprise NFL title as a fifth seed, and the 2011 squad appears to be getting hot at the right time as well. After posting convincing wins over the crosstown-rival New York Jets and Dallas to close out the regular season with an NFC East crown, the fourth-seeded Giants delivered possibly their most complete performance of this campaign in last Sunday's clash with Atlanta in the opening round of the playoffs.
The Giants dominated the Falcons across both lines of scrimmage en route to a 24-2 blowout, with New York rushing for a season-best 172 yards on the afternoon while its resurgent defense yielded a scant 247 total yards in the near-shutout.
New York has permitted just 30 points during the three-game tear and comes into Sunday's tilt with no shortage of swagger, as illustrated by All-Pro defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul's bold guarantee of a win this weekend.
"We are very confident," Pierre-Paul said following the Atlanta game. "Last time [the Packers] came in here and they beat us, which they shouldn't have, and we are just going to go out there and play some great football. It's going to be cold and the atmosphere will be theirs, but we're going to be ready to play."
The defense will surely face a stern challenge from Rodgers, however. The Green Bay sharp-shooter has thrown for 773 yards and eight touchdowns Pack's last two ousts of the Giants.
Rodgers rested in the Packers' Week 17 finale, with well-regarded backup Matt Flynn shattering franchise single-game records for passing yards (480) and touchdown strikes (six) in a superb fill-in performance to lead the defending world champs to a 45-41 win over Detroit. Green Bay also held out wide receiver Greg Jennings (knee), running back James Starks (ankle), offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga (knee) and rookie return man Randall Cobb (groin) against the Lions, but all are on track to suit up for Sunday's pivotal tilt.
It's unclear as to whether the Packers will have offensive coordinator Joe Philbin available, however, after the valued assistant took an indefinite leave of absence from the team during its playoff preparations. Philbin's 21-year-old son, Michael, died in a drowning accident this past weekend.
Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy didn't believe the situation would have a negative effect on his players' focus when he addressed the media on Wednesday, however.
"Personally, I really don't have the words for you to express emotionally how you would feel for Joe and what his family is going through," Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy stated. "We are very blessed to have this opportunity of playing this playoff game at home, and he would want us more than anybody to pour our hearts into this preparation more than anybody. That is what this football team has done."
The Packers bring a 13-game home winning streak into Sunday's matchup and have come out on top in each of their three Divisional Round games they've hosted after receiving a bye week, having previously done so in the 1996, 1997 and 2007 NFC Playoffs.
These two storied franchises have opposed one another a total of six times in the postseason, with the above-noted 2007 NFC Championship the last of those meetings. The other five playoff bouts between the teams all occurred in the NFL Championship Game, with Green Bay winning the 1939, 1944, 1961 and 1962 editions and New York earning a 23-17 decision at the Polo Grounds in the 1938 title clash. The Giants are 1-2 all-time as the visitor against the Packers in postseason play.
Green Bay's Week 13 win at MetLife Stadium gave the Packers a 27-21-2 lead in a regular-season series with New York that dates back to 1928 and was the team's sixth victory in its last seven non-playoff tests against the Giants. That includes the previously-mentioned 45-17 pasting of New York at Lambeau Field during Week 16 of the 2010 season, a result that helped propel the eventual Super Bowl champion Packers into the NFC Playoffs as the sixth seed and kept the Giants out of the postseason.
New York's Tom Coughlin is just 2-5 against the Packers during his head coaching career, which includes a pair of losses while at the helm of the Jacksonville Jaguars from 1995-2002, but did lead the Giants to the above- mentioned overtime triumph at Lambeau in the 2007 NFC Championship. McCarthy is 3-1 against both Coughlin and the Giants over his six-year tenure with the Packers, with the lone blemish coming in the conference title game four years back.
McCarthy has compiled a 5-2 record in the postseason, while Coughlin upped his career playoff mark to 9-7 with last Sunday's verdict and is 5-3 in such games while with the Giants.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
A New York offense that's relied extensively upon the strong right arm of Manning (4933 passing yards, 29 TD, 16 INT) has displayed far more balance during the stretch run, and the team had its inconsistent running game operating at maximum efficiency in last week's big win over Atlanta. The diverse backfield duo of 264-pound punisher Brandon Jacobs (571 rushing yards, 15 receptions, 8 total TD) and slasher Ahmad Bradshaw (659 rushing yards, 34 receptions, 11 total TD) combined for 155 yards on 28 carries as the Giants wore down the Falcons, and the former was also a factor in the earlier matchup with Green Bay by totaling 59 yards and a touchdown on only eight attempts. New York is 8-0 this season when eclipsing 100 rushing yards in a game and extremely difficult to defend when it can move the chains on the ground with regularity, as Manning turned in his best season as a pro and the former Super Bowl MVP has a pair of game-breaking receivers to work with in Victor Cruz (82 receptions, 1536 yards, 9 TD) and Hakeem Nicks (76 receptions, 1192 yards, 7 TD). The Packers are well aware of the duo's capabilities, as the two teamed up for 207 yards on 14 catches and Nicks hauled in two of Manning's three touchdown passes in the teams' December encounter. Tight ends Jake Ballard (38 receptions, 4 TD) and Travis Beckum were also able to generate big plays on the Green Bay secondary, with the latter connecting with Manning on a 67-yard touchdown, while No. 3 receiver Mario Manningham (39 receptions, 4 TD) showed he's over a knee problem which kept him out of three of the final six regular- season games by contributing 68 yards and a score on four grabs against the Falcons.
Moving the football hasn't been much of an issue for teams facing a Green Bay defense that permitted league worsts of 299.8 passing yards and 411.6 total yards per game over the course of the regular season, and the Giants gained 447 yards in last month's see-saw affair. The unit did come up with one of the game's biggest plays, however, when standout outside linebacker Clay Matthews (50 tackles, 6 sacks, 3 INT) intercepted Manning and returned the pick 38 yards for a touchdown early in the second quarter, and creating turnovers has been the specialty of longtime coordinator Dom Capers' group. The Packers topped the NFL with 31 interceptions and tied San Francisco for the league lead in takeaways (38), and Matthews' score was one of five defensive touchdowns the team produced. Green Bay will attempt to combat New York's outstanding wideout combo of Cruz and Nicks with its accomplished cornerback tandem of veteran playmaker Charles Woodson (74 tackles, 2 sacks, 7 INT) and Tramon Williams (64 tackles, 4 INT, 19 PD), with the relentless Matthews getting assistance from outside counterpart Erik Walden (60 tackles, 3 sacks) and Pro Bowl nose tackle B.J. Raji (22 tackles, 3 sacks) in a pass-rushing effort that's been spotty for a good portion of the year. The Packers allowed an average of 5.0 yards per rush attempt as well in their first showdown with the Giants, though regular inside linebackers Desmond Bishop (115 tackles, 5 sacks) and A.J. Hawk (84 tackles, 1.5 sacks) both missed the contest due to injuries.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
The bye week turned out to be a needed bonus for a Green Bay offense that had been dealing with a few key injuries down the stretch, and the anticipated returns of the two-time Pro Bowler Jennings (67 tackles, 9 TD), Starks (578 rushing yards, 1 TD, 29 receptions), Bulaga and 12-year left tackle Chad Clifton further reinforces an already-dangerous contingent that helped the Packers put up the second-highest point total (560) in league history. Green Bay was very successful in spreading the Giants out with multiple-receiver looks in the initial meeting, in which the incredibly-accurate Rodgers (4643 passing yards, 45 TD, 6 INT) accumulated 369 yards and four touchdowns while adding a team-best 32 rushing yards on four scrambles. Jennings was one of three Packers to record over 85 receiving yards in that game, with multi- dimensional tight end Jermichael Finley (55 receptions, 8 TD) and field- stretching wideout Jordy Nelson (68 receptions, 1263 yards, 15 TD) also doing their share of damage, while steady veteran Donald Driver (37 receptions, 6 TD) caught a pair of touchdown passes that day and can still make an impact out of the slot. Having Starks, who exited December's win over New York with his bothersome ankle sprain, back in the fold is an added plus as well, as the second-year pro is the team's best pass protector among the running backs and gives Rodgers another outlet as a receiver. He'll share carries with onetime Giant Ryan Grant (559 rushing yards, 19 receptions, 3 total TD) for an offense that finished the regular season just 27th in rushing yards (97.4 ypg).
While the Packers possess one of the NFL's most lethal aerial attacks, the Giants counter with a fierce pass rush that accounted for 48 sacks (tied 3rd overall) during the regular season and has been especially formidable as of late. New York has racked up 13 sacks during its current winning run, with most of the pressure coming from a deep and athletic front line headlined by the mega-talented Pierre-Paul (86 tackles, 16.5 sacks), who was able to cause problems for Green Bay in the first game, and two-time Pro Bowl honoree Justin Tuck (37 tackles, 5 sacks). The return of end Osi Umenyiora (25 tackles, 9 sacks) from an ankle injury prior to the regular-season finale against Dallas has paid dividends as well, with the high-impact edge rusher having tallied three sacks in two games since coming back into the lineup. The defense also got some welcome injury news this week when starting cornerback Aaron Ross (60 tackles, 4 INT, 12 PD) was cleared to play after leaving last Sunday's win with a mild concussion, as the Giants will need all hands on deck against Green Bay's strong cast of receivers. He and team interception leader Corey Webster (51 tackles, 6 INT, 18 PD) will man the outside flanks for Sunday's bout, with rookie linebacker Jacquian Williams (78 tackles, 1 sack) likely asked to carry out an important role of trying to contain the versatile Finley, who had 87 yards on six catches to help key the Packers' Week 13 win over New York.
This is an area in which the Packers seem to have an edge, as kicker Mason Crosby made good on a career-best 85.7 percent (24-of-28) of his field goal attempts during the regular season and the dynamic Cobb quickly established himself as one of the league's premier return specialists. The 2011 second- round pick finished second in the NFC with a splendid 27.7 average on kickoffs and added a solid 11.3 yards per punt return, and took both a kick and a punt back for a touchdown during his debut campaign. Second-year punter Tim Masthay was an asset as well, placing 23 of his 55 attempts inside the enemy's 20-yard line while boosting his gross average from 43.9 in 2010 to 45.6 this season.
The Giants have few standouts on the special-teams front, though punter Steve Weatherford (45.7 avg.) turned in a good first season after switching over from the fellow North Jersey-tenant Jets and is coming off an excellent showing in the Wild Card round in which none of his four boots were returned. Kicker Lawrence Tynes, perhaps best remembered for knocking home a 47-yard field goal in overtime that sent New York to the Super Bowl with its 2007 NFC Championship besting of the Packers, was a mediocre 19-of-24 on three-point tries this season and an even shakier 4-of-8 from beyond 40 yards. The return units were also nothing to write home about, with the Giants ranking 22nd in kickoff runbacks and a poor 29th on punts. Devin Thomas (24.3 avg.) and rookie receiver Jerrel Jernigan (23.3 avg.) handle kickoff duties, with Ross (7.1 avg.) replaced by ex-Packer Will Blackmon (4.2 avg.) as the primary punt returner late in the season.
There seems to be one team that rises from the ranks of a lesser seed and makes an unexpected championship push every playoff season, and there's mounting evidence that this edition of the Giants could be the one that duplicates what its 2007 predecessors and last year's Packers were both able to accomplish. And with a recent tragedy providing a potential distraction and the possibility of rust due to an extended layoff, Green Bay looks to be at its most vulnerable as it enters this game. Then again, the Packers have proven in the past to be an outfit capable of overcoming great adversity, as evidenced by last season's championship march in which McCarthy's charges withstood an inordinate amount of potentially-devastating injuries, and let's not forget that this is a team that went 15-1 during the regular season and hasn't lost at home since October of 2010. The Giants are in peak form and should once again give the NFC favorites a serious challenge, but Rodgers' past success against the defense he'll face on Sunday will show up in a result that could very well be eerily similar to the one when these two contenders last went toe-to-toe.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 27, Giants 24
01/12 15:49:29 ET