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Game Preview: New York Giants at Green Bay Packers, January 8, 2017
The New York Giants and Green Bay Packers ancient playoff rivalry has officially been reignited in full force. The Giants and Packers met in NFL title games in 1938, 1939, 1944, 1961, and 1962. The Giants won the first of these NFL Championships but lost the other four. Fast forward to the 2007 NFC Championship Game – the Packers were heavy favorites to win what ended up being Brett Favre’s last game in a Packers uniform. In a post-season classic and arguably Eli Manning’s best game, the Giants won in overtime. Four years later, the Giants once again tore the hearts out of the Packers faithful by pulling off a monumental upset of a 15-1 Packers team that was expected to waltz to the Super Bowl. Now for the EIGHTH time, two flagship franchises of the NFL will meet in the cold of winter in the playoffs. It’s fitting that uniforms of both teams are not all that different from those teams in the 1960s and that the game will be played at venerable and frigid Lambeau Field.
In terms of roster makeup, five years is almost an eternity. Very few players remain on both teams from the 2011 playoff game. Tom Coughlin is gone as is most of his coaching staff from that season. But the quarterbacks are the same. And the fans remember. Despite significant changes in both franchises, I guarantee you that many Packers fans didn’t want to see the Giants again in the playoffs. It is impossible for Green Bay fans to shake the pain of 2007 and 2011. And the longer Sunday’s game remains tight, the more nervous the people in the stands will get. The players on both sides on the field will feel that nervousness. The pressure is once again on the Packers, not the Giants. Psychologically, this match-up favors New York.
Win or lose, Ben McAdoo’s debut season exceeded expectations. Very few expected an 11-win season and a playoff spot wrapped up before the regular-season finale. Now we find out what mettle Ben McAdoo and his team are really made of. In some ways, this reminds me of 1984. In his second year after a disastrous debut season, Bill Parcells was still considered a question mark. His team was expected to be badly beaten by a Rams team that had easily done so in the regular season. However, the Giants pulled off the upset in a low-scoring game. It was the first major step in building the Parcells’ legacy. A win in Green Bay against his old team and his old head coach and mentor would be huge for McAdoo and the franchise.
That all said, there is one player on the Giants who may be under tremendous personal pressure: Eli Manning. The quarterback who holds virtually every record in team history turned 36 last Tuesday. As we have all learned, making the playoffs is never guaranteed. This could be Eli’s last shot at post-season glory. One more significant playoff run would ensure Eli’s legacy. On the flip side, if Manning fizzles, a team with a relatively young, solid core will have to be concerned about the all-important quarterback position moving forward in 2017. Does Eli Manning have a bit of post-season magic left in his right arm?
THE INJURY REPORT:
- TE Jerell Adams (shoulder) – probable
- RT Bobby Hart (forearm) – probable
- DE Jason Pierre-Paul (core muscle) – out
- DE Owa Odighizuwa (hamstring) – doubtful
- CB Janoris Jenkins (back) – probable
- CB Coty Sensabaugh (ankle) – probable
- S Nat Berhe (concussion) – probable
NEW YORK GIANTS ON OFFENSE:
The New York Giants have not scored more than 20 points in five straight games. If that streak reaches six in a row, the Giants will likely be one-and-done in the playoffs. Looking at the big picture, what Ben McAdoo and his staff have done is force fed the ground game in recent weeks. While the team has surpassed the 100-yard mark in each of the last three games, it hasn’t been pretty and point production has suffered. This strategy has reduced risk, increased the time of possession, and turned Eli Manning into more of a game manager. The Giants have been playing not to lose on offense, relying on their rapidly improving defense.
Opposing defenses have pretty much approached the Giants offense the same all season: play two-deep safeties (cover 2), double (and sometimes triple) Odell Beckham, and dare the Giants to beat them in other areas. Simply put, the Green Bay Packers are not likely to be overly concerned about what the Giants running game or other receiving options will do to them. They know Sterling Shepard, Victor Cruz, and Will Tye will not hurt them down the field. And they do not fear Rashad Jennings and Paul Perkins. The Giants have demonstrated all year that if they don’t get big chunks in the passing game (almost exclusively to Beckham), they have trouble moving the ball and scoring.
Back in October at Lambeau Field, this was how the Packers handled the Giants. New York scored 19 points and just one touchdown. They had only ONE play over 20 yards (to Tye for 27 yards) and only ran the football 14 times for 43 yards. In total, the Giants finished with an embarrassing 14 first downs (4 in the first half) and 219 total net yards. A jittery Eli Manning struggled against a poor pass defense, completing only 50 percent of his passes. Both offensive tackles struggled terribly. Cruz was shut out and Shepard held to two catches for 14 yards. Beckham was targeted 12 times, but only had five catches for 56 yards.
The 3-4 defense of the Packers finished 2016 ranked 22nd in defense (8th against the run, 31st against the pass). Their shoddy pass defense has further been weakened by injury issues at corner. Back in October, the Packers had the NFL’s 1st-ranked run defense and 27th-ranked pass defense. The Giants approached that game as expected, passing the ball 74 percent of the time (40 passes, 14 runs). But the Giants could not take advantage of Green Bay’s poor pass defense. So the dilemma the Giants face in this game is do they go with another pass-heavy game plan, hoping to execute far better? Or do they continue their recent strategy of force-feeding their backs against what is a quality run defense that is likely to play the pass first? If the Giants could actually move the ball on the ground against Green Bay, the latter strategy would make sense as it would help win the time of possession battle and keep Aaron Rodgers on the bench. The problem is that is a big “if” as the Giants have yet to demonstrate a consistent ground game that moves the chains AND produces points (note the Giants only have six rushing touchdowns this year). At the very least, one would hope the more explosive and instinctive Paul Perkins receives the bulk of the carries.
The Packers are almost dead last in pass defense, but they have 40 sacks and have forced 25 turnovers (17 of those interceptions). Ultimately, what the strategy comes down to is this: does Ben McAdoo believe Eli Manning can play at a different level than he did in the regular season and protect the football? Does he believe his tackles can block Green Bay’s outside rushers better than they did in October? If he does, then he is more likely to open up the offense and play match-up football. Does Eli have some magic left? Is Odell Beckham a money player in the playoffs? Can rookies like Shepard, Perkins, and maybe even tight end Jerell Adams make a difference?
NEW YORK GIANTS ON DEFENSE:
The New York Giants have a defense again. Unbelievably, the Giants improved from 32nd in 2015 to 10th in 2016 in yards allowed, and from 30th to 2nd in points allowed. But now it’s money time. The 2011 NYG defense finished 27th in the NFL, but turned it on during the playoff run. With the Giants offense struggling to score points, the pressure is on the defense to play as well if not better than it did down the stretch of the regular season.
The challenge is arguably the quarterback who is playing the best in the NFL right now, Aaron Rodgers. How well? A 40-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Worse, he has an 18-to-0 ratio in his last seven games. Rodgers is very accurate and can make all of the throws, even when on the move and not having his feet properly set. Indeed, some of his best plays come when he is buying time with his mobility. The Giants not only need to get pressure on him, but they need to bring him down. Not having Jason Pierre-Paul hurts as the Giants won’t be able to generate much consistent pass pressure without blitzing, like they did against the Washington Redskins last week. But when you blitz Rodgers, you are rolling the dice and risking giving up the cheap big play. The last time these two teams met, the Giants got virtually no pressure on Rodgers (no sacks and three QB hits). And there were plays when Rodgers had all day to throw.
That all said, there are two areas where the Giants should match-up well. One, with running backs Eddie Lacey and James Starks out, the Packers have been forced to play wide receiver Ty Montgomery at running back. While Montgomery has averaged an extremely impressive 5.9 yards per carry, he’s no Lacey. And the Giants feel they can rough him up. In the October meeting, the Packers ran for 147 yards on the Giants with Lacey leading the way.
The other area where the Giants match-up well is the Packers’ strength – their wide receiving corps. The last time these two teams met, Eli Apple and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie were hurt. As great as Jordy Nelson (97 catches, 14 touchdowns), Davante Adams (75 catches, 12 touchdowns), and Randall Cobb (60 catches, 4 touchdowns) have been, this trio hasn’t dealt with the trio of corners the Giants can field.
The greater challenge in coverage may be tight ends Jared Cook and Richard Rodgers, as well as RB/WR Montgomery coming out of the backfield. The Giants did not defend the screen game well in October, and Cook did not play in that game. In addition, wide receiver Geronimo Allison has looked good and the Packers may try some 4-WR sets.
Despite New York’s lofty defensive ranking, this game will be a challenge for the Giants. Much depends on which version of Rodgers shows up. He hasn’t had his best games against the Giants, including in October when he only completed half his passes and threw two of his seven interceptions. The Giants are not likely to get much heat on him without blitzing their defensive backs, but Rodgers will be looking for that too based on his film study of the Washington game. Steve Spagnuolo has to pray his defenders up front stymie Green Bay’s patch-work ground game (watch out for the fullback too) so he can concentrate on the pass targets.
NEW YORK GIANTS ON SPECIAL TEAMS:
This is an area where the Giants can win the game. I expect Odell Beckham to return punts. And keep in mind the Giants early season success in blocking or coming close to blocking punts and kicks. If the Giants get desperate, might we see a fake from the not-so-conservative Ben McAdoo?
FROM THE COACH’S MOUTH:
Head Coach Ben McAdoo on the Packers: “Winners of six in a row. They’re scoring the football at a good clip, 31 points a game during the streak. Taking care of the football and Aaron is playing MVP-type football. Defensively, they get after the quarterback and are forcing turnovers. They have 11 turnovers in the last three weeks. They’re holding opponents to 18 points during their winning streak.”
THE FINAL WORD:
My head says Packers given the level at which Aaron Rodgers is performing combined with New York’s constant struggle to score more than 20 points per game. Also, Rodgers doesn’t turn the ball over and Manning does. But my gut says the Giants are in heads of Mike McCarthy, Rodgers, and the Green Bay fans. The longer this game remains close, the more nervous the Packers will get. Eli Manning understands the preciousness of the situation. And we’re about to see if Odell Beckham has a playoff level. The turnover differential will probably decide the game.