Oh man, watch out for the friggin’ Giants again. As our man Joe Fortenbaugh pointed out earlier today, the Giants are 6-0 against the spread in their last six playoff games as an underdog and 5-1 ATS in their last six games overall. That means the Packers are almost certain to have their hands full in the final game of the weekend.
The top storylines:
1. Eli vs. Rodgers. Both Eli Manning and Aaron Rodgers are Pro Bowlers coming off of career years. Rodgers is probably the MVP, but Manning might actually be just as hot.
2. Offense! It’s a battle of two former Super Bowl MVP quarterbacks and two top-10 offenses. The Packers have scored at least 27 points in nine of their last 10 games, while the Giants put up at least 29 in four of their last five regular-season games.
3. Heavy hearts in Green Bay. It should be a pretty emotional game for the Packers after offensive coordinator Joe Philbin lost his 21-year-old son in a tragic accident this week.
The last time they met…
- It went down to the final play, but the Packers barely survived, winning 38-35 to maintain their perfect season in Week 13. Both quarterbacks were on fire, especially in the second half.
- Total yards: Packers 449, Giants 447.
- Despite only recording two sacks, the Giants got a lot of pressure on Rodgers.
Injuries to watch:
- The Giants are healthier than they’ve been all year, but Osi Umenyiora is still bothered by ankle and knee injuries.
- The Packers were quite banged up late in the season, but they’ll have everyone — including Chad Clifton, Bryan Bulaga, Greg Jennings and James Starks — in the lineup Sunday.
Just start reading my take on the factors at play and I’m sure you’ll quickly get a clue as to who I’m leaning toward:
1. The Giants are a team nobody wants to play right now. It’s that pass rush and that big-play ability. It’s their penchant for winning big road games. It’s their sudden dexterity in the running game. It’s the red-hot Manning. And maybe more than anything, it’s the memory of what they did in January of 2008, when they ran the postseason table on the road (including a win at Lambeau) to shock the world and win the Super Bowl. Sure, that was four years ago, but this team has many of the same pieces in place and a very similar feel.
2. The Packers had trouble with the Giants in the regular season. Since then, New York’s pass rush has improved, Eli has stepped it up and the running game has found new life. The Giants are also healthier now than they were then. Remember, they got steady pressure on Rodgers in the first meeting despite not having Umenyiora in the lineup.
More on the improved health of the Giants from ESPN’s Dan Graziano:
“One thing the Giants have going in their favor is that they’re much healthier on defense than they were in the first Green Bay game. That day, linebacker Michael Boley was still coming back from a hamstring injury. Chase Blackburn had just been signed off the street. Osi Umenyiora was out with an ankle injury. Safety Kenny Phillips hurt his knee in the second quarter and had to come out of the game. Safety Deon Grant said Wednesday he remembers the all-hands-on-deck feeling from a game in which he had to spend some time at middle linebacker.”
3. The Giants are more balanced on offense. In the first meeting, New York completely shut down Ryan Grant, and the Green Bay running game has failed to reach the 100-yard plateau in all but two of their last eight games. New York put up slightly worse numbers on the ground during the course of the season, and the return of Starks (who was a mini hero last January) should help Green Bay, but the G-men have somehow rushed for over 100 yards in five of their last six games. Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw both busted through for runs of over 30 yards Sunday against Atlanta.
4. The Giants have the league’s hottest pass rush, with the three-headed monster of Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul really in a groove. New York has 13 sacks in its last three games and finished the season two shy of the NFL lead with 48. Considering that the Packers took 41 sacks this season, that’s a worry. Another worry is that the Packers struggled to register sacks of their own all year, finishing with just 28 only one year after recording a conference-high 47. Give Manning room to work with his streaking receiving trio of Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham and you could be in real trouble.
5. The Giants are very beatable through the air, but they’ve given up just four total touchdowns and 28 total points in their last three games, holding those opponents to an average of 10 points per game.
6. Plus, the Packers have the worst defense in football. It’s strange — they’re so much healthier than they were last year, especially on defense, but something’s off. Maybe the absence of Nick Collins is hurting more than anyone assumed it would. All I know is that no team with the worst regular-season defense has ever advanced to the Super Bowl (thanks to our girl Laura Diakun for that stat). And don’t tell me that Green Bay’s defensive numbers are inflated by the fact they’ve led a lot of games late — they surrendered as many yards on a per play basis as the unbelievably bad Buccaneers.
7. I also understand that the Packers have won 13 straight home games dating back to last season, but the Giants are a relatively strong road team, and it’s not like they’ll be fazed by the winter temperatures at Lambeau. The Giants struggled a bit in New Orleans and San Francisco, but they were really good in Dallas, Philadelphia, and, most importantly, New England. And even in the loss to the Saints at the Superdome Manning had a really good game. I realize that the Packers have outscored their last eight home opponents by an average of 17 points, but it’s not as though the competition has been stiff, and they barely got past fellow NFC playoff teams New Orleans and Detroit at Lambeau.
8. Comparing Eli and Aaron. We known that Rodgers put up better numbers over the season as a whole, but let’s just take the last six games for each:
Manning: 50%, 1,852 YDS, 12 TD, 6 INT, 8.5 YPA, 85.7 rating
Rodgers: 59%, 1,774 YDS, 17 TD, 3 INT, 8.2 YPA, 105.7 rating
A bad game against the Jets really hurts Manning in terms of completion percentage and passer rating, but he produced more yards per dropback than Manning during that span. The point is that Rodgers hasn’t been quite as untouchable as he was earlier in the year, and Manning is at least in his range in some categories.
More on Manning from Laura Diakun: ”He finished fourth in the league in yards, had eight games of 300 passing yards or more, threw 15 fourth-quarter touchdowns and engineered five comeback victories.”
Consider, too, that Manning had a higher passer rating and YPA average on the road than he did at home. If Eli is on his game against the league’s worst pass defense, this could be a true shootout, which is obviously dangerous for the defending champions. There’s a reason why so few teams repeat.
9. The key could be turnovers. Green Bay can make up for its weak defense because it gets a lot of takeaways. The Packers led the league with 31 interceptions while forcing 38 turnovers during the regular season. It just so happens that the Giants turn it over a lot when they’re off their game — New York coughed it up 24 times in its first 15 games. But — and a big “but” here — the Giants haven’t turned it over once in their last two games, both against solid defenses. Plus, the Packers forced just two total turnovers in back-to-back big December games against the Chiefs and Bears. If the Giants can have another turnover-free affair, they might be bound for the NFC championship game.
In conclusion, I’ll admit that I’m fearing a Giants flop. They’ve lacked consistency all year, and only three weeks ago Manning had a 9-for-27 game against the Jets. This could be a New York dud, but history and my gut tells me that won’t be the case against such a beatable defense.
GLS prediction: Giants 34, Packers 31
(Last week’s record: 3-1 straight up; 2-1-1 against the spread)