Jan 182008
 
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Approach to the Game – New York Giants at Green Bay Packers, January 20, 2008: This is exciting.  That almost-forgotten, thrilling feeling in the pit of my stomach that I first felt 21 years ago, then 17 years ago, and finally 7 years ago has returned.  Being in the playoffs is one thing, but being one of the Final Four teams is something completely different.

The Giants are one game away from the Super Bowl.

It’s a natural high, but there is also some demented lunacy attached with it.  I find myself day dreaming of different gridiron scenarios – Giants winning, Giants losing, Giants in a close game, Giants in a blow out, Packers coming from behind to win, Giants coming from behind to win, etc.  I’ve even caught myself mumbling to myself, “Let’s go Giants!”

It’s a fun time.  Living in a city outside of the NY/NJ area, on my daily commute I catch people glancing at my Giants hat with envy.  I’ve had other displaced Giants’ fans living in the DC area who see it blurt out “Go Giants!”  It’s times like these that make all the tough losses and seasons worth it.

But these times do not come around often.

This is the fourth time in my lifetime that the Giants have made it to the Final Four.  I’m 40.  There has been talk on the website this week that the future is bright for the Giants, that they will be even better next year and beyond.  Well that may be true, the odds are that the Giants will not be in this position again next year.  Each season is different.  Just ask the Chicago Bears.  And being better does not mean you will advance far.  Just ask the Dallas Cowboys.

“It’s special,” WR Amani Toomer said earlier this week. “Who knows the next time we’ll get in the championship game?  You don’t really get this deep in the playoffs that often. This is my second time and I definitely want to get everybody to realize the importance of where we are. I want them to just realize that this is an opportunity to make all the dreams that you ever had as a little kid come true with a couple of wins.”

Once again, the Giants are the underdogs.  Everyone is picking against them.  The folks at FOX and the NFL corporate types do not want to see them advance.  The preference would be for a Tom Brady-Brett Favre Super Bowl.

But those pesky Giants won’t go away!

The Giants have played four tough, emotion-packed and physical games in a row.  Bills, Patriots, Buccaneers, and Cowboys.  Can they rally one more time and defeat a very well-balanced, well-coached football team on its home turf?

The odds are not in their favor.  But I wouldn’t pick against them.

Giants on Defense: Obviously, the biggest concern here is the injury situation at cornerback.  Kevin Dockery (hip flexor) has not practiced since the Buccaneers game and it is extremely unlikely that he will play.  Sam Madison (officially abdomen – but probably some sort of rib injury) finally practiced on a limited basis late this week, but according to press reports, he is still moving around gingerly.  Aaron Ross dislocated his shoulder at least once in the Dallas game and will be wearing a brace/harness.  The big concern is how long will he be able to play?  That shoulder could pop out again upon any kind of contact.  And you know the Packers will try to do just that by running sweeps in his direction.  Ross has to use his head in this game.  The Giants simply cannot afford to lose him.  He’s going to have to pull up and hope one of his teammates can make the play.  But that’s not in his nature.  He’s an aggressive and physical football player.

The problem for the Giants is that the Packers can and will spread you out with 4- and 5-wide receiver formations.  And unlike Tony Romo and the Cowboys last week, the Packers are unlikely to keep dropping balls or missing open receivers.  Obviously, the Giants need a huge effort from their pass rushers.  But the footing on Sunday at Lambeau Field (even though the field is heated) will not be good.  That will hurt the pass rush.  Do the Giants play it conservatively and rush four while playing seven in coverage?  Or do they come after Favre?  My guess is that they will do what brought them this far and get after Favre.  But they had better get there.

Where Favre has improved this year is that he is more patient with the short-passing game.  That’s what killed the Giants in Week 2 at the Meadowlands – short passes to the receivers, including the tight ends and backs.  Because of that, the undercoverage by the linebackers and safeties (and defensive line in zone-blitz situations) will be critical.  TE Donald Lee (48 catches, 6 touchdowns) creates mismatches for many defenses.  The Giants’ linebackers will be hard-pressed to stay with him in coverage.  I would almost be tempted to play Gerris Wilkinson more even though he is more inexperienced because Wilkinson is the better athlete.  The Packers will also surprise you at times in their 2-TE formation by throwing to TE Bubba Franks (18 catches, 3 touchdowns).  But be very wary too of passes to the backs out of the backfield.  Halfbacks Ryan Grant, Brandon Jackson, and Vernand Morency combined for 76 catches this season.  It is obvious that the Packers didn’t respect the ability of the Giants’ linebackers to cover back in September.  They’ll test that again.

But Favre still is a gunslinger.  He still has a rocket for an arm and he will take his deep shots.  To me, the guy who really, really has to elevate his game this week is James Butler.  Butler has to play well for the Giants to win.  He can’t let receivers get behind him.  And he has to tackle much, much better in the open field.

The top three wide receivers on the Packers are Donald Driver (82 catches, 2 touchdowns), Greg Jennings (53 catches and 12 touchdowns), and James Jones (47 catches, 2 touchdowns).  The Giants have been moving their corners around in recent weeks so it will be interesting to see who Corey Webster usually sticks with and who Aaron Ross usually stays on.  I would guess Webster will cover Driver.  Will Sam Madison play?  If not, the Giants need another big performance from R.W. McQuarters in the nickel.  The Packers will also try to force the Giants to get Geoffrey Pope on the field, but the Giants may counter with more safeties.

One of the least appreciated aspects of the Packers’ team is their offensive line.  This is a line that can both run and pass block.  Since Ryan Grant has become the feature back.  The Packers have become one of the best rushing teams in the NFL.  And Favre was sacked only 15 times in the regular season – averaging about one sack a game.  The strength of the line is the two outside tackles:  LT Chad Clifton and RT Mark Tauscher.  The Giants will need much better games from Osi Umenyiora and Michael Strahan than they got in Week Two.  And the Giants desperately need a better performance from their defensive tackles than they got last week against Dallas.

Grant started only seven regular season games, but has almost 1,000 yards.  He is averaging over 5 yards per carry.  He is a good cutback runner with enough speed to break the big play.  And he has good hands out of the backfield.  Obviously, the Giants need to control him first and foremost, something that Seattle couldn’t do in the Divisional Round of the playoffs as he rushed for 201 yards on 27 carries (over 7 yards a carry).  But New York has to be wary of the play-action too.  That’s why Green Bay is do dangerously offensively.

Stating the obvious, defensively, what this game comes down to is this:  The Giants need to control the line of scrimmage against a very good offensive line.  Against the run, guard against the cutback.  When Green Bay puts the ball up, get heat on Favre.  The linebackers are going to have to play exceptionally well and be aggressive in coverage against the tight ends and backs.  Don’t give up the cheap play deep to the wide receivers.  Most importantly, force some turnovers.

Giants on Offense: Green Bay has a very good defensive team.  They have two ends in their own right who can rush the passer (Aaron Kampman – 12 sacks and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila – 10 sacks), two very good cover corners (Al Harris and Charles Woodson) and one of the better linebacking corps in the League.

My strategy against Green Bay would be to run the football.  Yes, it is what Green Bay will be expecting, but Green Bay’s defense probably was lulled to sleep a bit by the anemic Seahawks’ ground attack last week.  In cold weather football games, the ground game is your best friend.  Pound the football with Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw.  The Packers have seen neither of these two yet.  And Derrick Ward rushed for 90 yards on 15 carries in Week Two.  The key is for the offensive line to control the line of scrimmage.  The Giants have to control the tackles in particular (Ryan Pickett and Corey Williams).

The problem for the Giants when they put the ball up is that Al Harris is the very type of corner who gives Plaxico Burress fits – bigger, physical bump-and-run guy similar to the Cowboys’ Anthony Henry.  And Charles Woodson against Amani Toomer is a good match-up for the Packers as well.  When the Giants do pass, the QB Eli Manning will likely have to focus a great deal on WR Steve Smith against nickel back.  Nickel coverage has been somewhat of a problem for Green Bay.  The Giants must get a good game out of Kevin Boss too.  That’s asking a lot of the inexperienced rookie in the biggest game of his life, but there is no choice.  If I’m Kevin Gilbride, my secret weapon, however, is Bradshaw.  Not just as a runner, but especially as a pass receiver.  I would send him out on patterns a lot, down the field, not just on swing passes.  Get him matched up on the Packers’ linebackers and safeties.

Pass protection will be crucial too.  This biggest potential mismatch is RT Kareem McKenzie, who is nursing a very sore ankle, against Kampman.  But Diehl also has to do a good job against Gbaja-Biamila when he enters the game.  The Packers do bump-and-run a lot so the receivers will need time to get open.  If Manning has time, he can make some plays deep.

Lastly, we come to Eli.  He has played three very strong games in a row.  Does he have in him to out-duel a living legend?  The odds say no.  On paper, Favre versus Manning is huge advantage for the Packers.  But if Eli can somehow lift his team over the Packers, he will truly have arrived.  The big thing for Eli in this game will be to not turn the football over.  Cold, wet conditions in Buffalo gave him all kinds of problems (5 fumbles, 2 interceptions).  He MUST protect the football.  Cold footballs do get slippery.

Giants on Special Teams: As I said last week, the Giants are hot on special teams at the right time.  Bradshaw may be the difference here.  The Giants have gotten close to blocking punts all year.  Now is as good a time as any.  Let’s go Tyree!

Summary: No predictions this week.  To advance, the Giants will have to play their best game of the season.  But that’s the way it should be.  If guys like Strahan, Umenyiora, Tuck, Pierce, Manning, Burress, Toomer, Jacobs, and Feagles want to make it to the Big Dance, they will have to earn it.  Championships are not granted; they are earned.

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Eric Kennedy

Founder and owner of BigBlueInteractive.com, which is now entering its 20th season. Follow Eric on Twitter @BigBlueInteract.

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