4:40 PM EST, FOX – Line: Packers -6, Over/Under: 45
It seems that the NFL knew what they were doing in scheduling this particular matchup for last, as the Green Bay Packers host the New York Giants at Lambeau Field in the Wild Card Weekend Finale. Super Bowl-winning Quarterbacks? Historically successful franchises? Explosive and flamboyant playmakers? This matchup seems to have it all, folks, including some very interesting recent postseason history. Though it’s no doubt been covered over and over, it cannot go overlooked that the Giants (11-5, 2nd in NFC East) have gone into Lambeau and ended the Packers’ Playoff Run twice over the last ten years, both of which came with Eli Manning (63.0% 4,027 YDS, 26 TD 16 INT) pulling the strings under Center. The first instance happened back in the 2007 NFC Championship when Manning and Co. stormed into the literally frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, and traded blows with Green Bay before a Lawrence Tynes Field Goal (set up by a timely interception return) dramatically ended Brett Favre’s career in the Green and Gold. Fast forward a few years to 2011 and Big Blue once again marched into the frigid land of cheese and pulled the unlikeliest of upsets, unseating the 15-1 reigning champions. Oh, and did we fail to mention that on both occasions that New York would go on to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, their third and fourth as a franchise? Coincidentally, 2011 also marked the last time that the Giants have been in the Playoffs, the longest drought in the franchise’s proud history, but they’ve nonetheless returned with a rather familiar formula: nasty defense and a big-play offense. After ranking dead last in Total Defense a year ago, Management emptied the coffers in an attempt to rebuild that side of the ball, and surprise surprise, it’s paid off and then some. Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has proven before (I.E. 2007) what he can do with talent to work with, and 2016 has been no exception; the Giants have allowed 17.8 Points per Game (2nd Overall) on 339.7 Total Yards (10th Overall), including 251.1 versus the pass (23rd Overall) and another 88.6 against the rush (3rd Overall). Don’t be fooled by the volume of passing yards allowed, for as is usually the case, the devil is indeed in the details; this group has been exceptional in this regard considering that their opponents have thrown more passes against them than all but three teams in the league (39.4), all the while yielding just 6.0 Net Yards per Attempt (7th Overall) and fifteen touchdowns (2nd Overall) in comparison to snaring seventeen interceptions (4th Overall). Offseason acquisitions Janoris Jenkins (49 TKL, 3 INT, 18 PD, 1 FF), Damon Harrison (86 TKL, 2.5 SK, 1 FF), and Olivier Vernon (64 TKL, 8.5 SK, 1 FF) have been worth their weight in gold this year, while Landon Collins (125 TKL, 4.0 SK, 5 INT, 13 PD, 1 TD) has emerged as a bonafide playmaker at Safety. Furthermore, Ben McAdoo’s charges have been on a tear, ripping off nine victories in their final eleven games after a disappointing 2-3 start to the campaign, with the Defense relegating the opposition below twenty points on six occasions during that run. It’s a good thing that these guys have played at such a high level, because their comrades on the offensive side of the ball have been a bit of a mixed bag, capable of creating huge plays while at the same struggling to sustain drives. Manning’s credentials are a given (particularly in the Playoffs), and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more threatening trident of Receivers than Odell Beckham Jr. (101 REC, 1,367 YDS, 10 TD), Victor Cruz (39 REC, 586 YDS, 1 TD), and Sterling Shepard (65 REC, 683 YDS, 8 TD), but the lingering problem in Gotham City has been an utterly uninspiring running game, which is equal parts struggling Backfield and Offensive Line. Only three teams averaged less rushing yards than the Giants (88.3), who scored a league-low SIX touchdowns on the ground as McAdoo searched through a revolving door at Tailback, while the five guys blocking for them were terribly inconsistent, particularly at both Tackle spots. With that said, there have been signs that he may have finally found a successful combination for over their final eight games of the term they’ve rushed for a solid 108.3 yards per game, racking up less than ninety-three yards just once, compared to the paltry 68.3 they stumbled to in the first eight outings, in which they rushed for more than seventy yards just three times. Balance has long been the key with this team, and it should be interesting to see if they can in fact maintain it moving forward.
Meanwhile, the Giants aren’t the only team carrying a great deal of momentum into the Postseason, for no participant in this tournament has been hotter of late than the Packers (10-6, 1st in NFC North), who overcame a 4-6 start, which included a four-game losing streak, to rip off six consecutive victories en route to an eighth straight Playoff Appearance. After a debilitating 42-24 blowout to the Washington Redskins on November 20th, Aaron Rodgers (65.7% 4,428 YDS, 40 TD, 7 INT) boldly predicted that he and his teammates could and would run the table, and it appears that in addition to being a two-time MVP, the Quarterback may also be a prophet. So what’s changed for Mike McCarthy’s charges, you ask? First and foremost, they’ve gotten healthier, particularly on Defense, where they were absolutely decimated during their midseason slide; Green Bay allowed 38.3 points on a staggering 423.3 yards during that aforementioned four-game skid, but have done a solid job in cleaning up that side of the ball, relinquishing a much-improved 18.7 points on 376.0 yards in the six games since. Secondly, the Packers have completely flipped the all-important Turnover Differential, which as we all know is one of the most significant components of success in the NFL; after a dreadful Minus-6 Differential through the first ten games of the term, they’ve forced a whopping fifteen turnovers in comparison to committing just one themselves, which has allowed them to overcome the large volume of yards they continue to give up. Case in point; the Packers have been torched for 400 or more yards in each of their last three contests, but have managed to keep all three of those opponents under thirty points thanks to forcing seven turnovers. And with that, it appears that thirty is the magic number for this team, for they lost all five games in which their Defense yielded thirty or more points this season, but is 10-1 in all others, including a perfect 5-0 mark when they’ve permitted between twenty to twenty-nine points. When you have a Quarterback playing at the level of Rodgers, you don’t need to force a Three-&-Out on every possession, you simply need to get the ball back to him, preferably with good Field Position. Fortunately for No. 12, he should have a full complement of weapons heading into tonight’s clash with the Giants, with Randall Cobb (60 REC, 610 YDS, 4 TD) likely to return from a nagging sprained ankle, joining a resurrected Jordy Nelson (97 REC, 1,257 YDS, 14 TD) and emerging Davante Adams (75 REC, 997 YDS, 12 TD) in the Receiving Corps. However, their 31-24 victory over the Detroit Lions in the Regular Season Finale, in which they secured their fifth NFC North Title in the last six years, did not come without sustaining some losses; Green Bay lost Cornerbacks Quinten Rollins (Concussion) and Damarious Randall (Knee) in that contest, with the former out for today’s game and the latter Questionable, while the Offensive Line continues to be banged up with starters T.J. Lang (Foot), J.C. Tretter (Knee), and Bryan Bulaga (Abdominal) all listed as Questionable with an assortment of injuries. Today’s meeting marks the second of the season for these teams, as Green Bay ousted New York in a 23-16 affair back on October 9th at Lambeau Field. The score didn’t quite indicate the gulf between the teams that day, as the Packers rung up 406 Total Yards on the Giants’ staunch Defense, including 147 rushing yards on thirty-two carries. Despite losing the Turnover Differential 1-2, the hosts dominated Time of Possession, holding the ball for 36:38, while Rodgers completed 23-of-45 passes for 259 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, while the Defense held Manning to just 18-of-35 passing for 199 yards and a score, sacking him three times. With that said, it should be noted that Eddie Lacy (81 YDS on 11 CAR) and James Starks (33 YDS on 12 CAR) played rather large roles in the home side’s rushing success, but McCarthy and Co. will be without the services of both Tailbacks, with the former languishing on Injured Reserve with a broken ankle, while the latter remains in Concussion Protocol after being involved in a car accident two weeks ago.