The playoffs get underway this weekend with a showdown between two of the hottest teams in the NFL, the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers.
In an interesting turn of events, there’s a floating theory that the winner of this game will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
That’s right. Not the Cowboys. Not the Seahawks. But either the Green Bay Packers or the New York Giants.
Both come in as two of the hottest teams in the NFL. Following the Week 11 loss down in D.C. against the Redskins, Green Bay looked all but finished. The sky was falling. This team was about to miss the postseason for the first time since 2008, when Aaron Rodgers first became the starter, replacing Brett Favre.
Coincidentally enough, this was the season after the would-be champion Giants went to Lambeau and eliminated Favre’s Packers in an overtime thriller.
After that embarrassing 42-24 loss in Washington, Rodgers said he thought his, then, 4-6 Packers could run the table.
Green Bay would go from losing four straight games to winning six in a row, including victories over teams like Seattle, Minnesota and Detroit? The last two teams mentioned were ahead of them in the standings. And Rodgers’ defense during the four game skid had surrendered over 38 points per game.
Furthermore, the absence of a consistent running game made GB one dimensional, thus predictable. That area of the Packers’ attack was stymied by injuries to Eddie Lacy and James Starks. In fact, it wasn’t until their next game that a Packer not named Rodgers rushed for a touchdown. Until that point, he was responsible for all 30 of their TDs (28 passing, two rushing).
This didn’t have the makings of a team that would even come close to winning out, let alone contending for a title. But oh how times have drastically changed. There’s been a complete 180. Since then, Green Bay has indeed run the table and captured its fifth division title in the last six years.
Rodgers delivered. He became the first Packers quarterback to lead the NFL in touchdown passes (40) since Favre did it in ’03. We’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge he achieved that feat while throwing just seven interceptions. Only twice in his career has he thrown double digit picks.
In a season rife with so much adversity, Rodgers found a way to triumph and thrust himself right in the thick of the MVP conversation. I, for one, think he’s the league MVP over Tom Brady and whoever else, but that’s a conversation for another day.
He’s the first QB in franchise history with 300 passing yards and four passing TDs with no interceptions in back-to-back games. So it doesn’t take a rocket science to point out a test awaits this vaunted Giants defense on Sunday afternoon.
But hey, if anyone is up for the challenge, it’s the G-Men, who were the second best scoring defense in the league. One of the keys to this defense performing exceptionally was getting off the field on third down. Opponents convert third-downs at a 35 percent clip against NY, which is tied for second-best in the NFL.
On Sunday night against the Lions, Rodgers danced around, bought time, pulled out a beach chair, drank a vodka on the rocks, then casually found Geronimo Allison for a huge touchdown.
— Green Bay Packers (@packers) January 2, 2017
For the Giants, they’ll obviously want to keep him in the pocket. Their pass rush has shown the ability to apply overwhelming pressure. They corralled 35 sacks this year, 12 more than they had last season. This most often leads to mistakes, which the Giants capitalized on with 17 interceptions (tied for fourth most).
Their last one of the regular season clinched division foe Washington a comfortable seat on the couch at home during the playoffs.
— New York Giants (@Giants) January 2, 2017
Though the mantra in sports is that of defense wins championships, that needs to be coupled with a semblance of an offensive game. It’s an area that has surprisingly been a weakness for the Giants this season. And it’s not about scoring just 13 points against the Redskins (Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Sheppard didn’t play in the second half).
But this is about how an offense we envisioned would be electric finished the year 26th in scoring. They failed to score 30 points in a game this season for the first time since 2001. You can get away with that when you have arguably the best defense in the league, and they did so, winning 11 games. But in the postseason, the path to success is much more arduous.
It’s been discussed ad nauseam that Eli Manning had a down year. He finished with his lowest QBR, passing yards and touchdowns since 2013, the year before Ben McAdoo arrived.
But we do know that there’s a different animal behind center when the playoffs arrive. Manning is 8-3 in the postseason with 17 TDs, eight picks, but most importantly … two Super Bowl MVPs.
We were actually reminded of his last SB win back in 2011 with a clutch throw he made late in the fourth quarter to help capture the win.
— New York Giants (@Giants) January 2, 2017
Tavarres King, who casual fans didn’t even know existed, channeled his inner Mario Manningham. This is the Eli Manning Giants fans love and the one opposing fans loathe.
If this guy shows up, NY can unquestionably win the Super Bowl with the way the defense is rolling.
The question is: Will he? The cheese-heads are, of course, hoping that’s not the case.
The Packers defense has been banged up all season long. Their best cover corner in Sam Shields was loss in the beginning of the season after his 5th documented concussion. Damarious Randall has battled injuries. Clay Matthews is playing with a shoulder injury that might require surgery at the end of the season. Nick Perry is playing with a club on his hand (something Giants fans are all too familiar with). When healthy, he’s provided his share of fireworks, leading the team with 11 sacks (sorry, I had to).
On the bright side, the defense has been much better of late. The Packers have a +14 turnover differential during the 6-game winning streak. And it seems to be clicking at the right time.
This game on Sunday has all the makings of being a instant classic. Two great teams vying for a chance to visit Jerry World to take on America’s Team. The Packers are seeking revenge against the Giants who have knocked them out the playoffs twice in the last decade. The Giants want revenge for their 23-16 loss Week 5 at Lambeau that was sandwiched by losses to Washington and Minnesota.
Both these teams love what the prize entails. For Green Bay, it’s a chance at payback for that 30-16 Week 6 loss at the hands of Dak Prescott and company. This was when the “Aaron Rodgers isn’t elite anymore” narrative took on a life of its own.
Interestingly enough, the Cowboys want payback of their own. The last time they were in the playoffs, they were bounced by these Packers in the infamous “Dez Bryant non-catch” game.
Meanwhile, the Giants have a hunger that could only be satiated with playoff success. They want to prove sweeping Dallas this season was no fluke. This team is oozing with confidence and for good reason. And as Victor Cruz alluded to, I’m sure they wouldn’t mind beating New England again.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Both sides have one thing to worry about. And that’s a game at Lambeau in sub-10 degree weather.
What a game this promises to be. Aaron Rodgers has 18 TDs and zero interceptions in the last seven games (Packers are 6-1). And the Giants have won eight of their last 10 games with the league’s best defense since Week 7. Can we just fast forward to Sunday?