Editor's Note: all statistics are through Week 16.
Who they are: The New York Giants rolled to a 6-2 record against the dregs of the league, then spent the next seven games fighting for their lives against a slate of playoff or near-playoff-level teams. After a midseason swoon that included losses to the Packers, Saints, Eagles and Redskins, the Giants stand at 9-7 by virtue of sweeping their division-rival Cowboys and claiming the NFC East division title.
Anyone familiar with the usual M.O. of Tom Coughlin-coached teams would be taken aback by this year’s Giants. Usually renowned for their running game, the Giants this year are last in the league at 88.1 yards per game. Their defense is near the bottom of the league in both scoring and yardage, allowing opponents 381.5 yards (28th) and 25.7 points (also 28th) per game. They’ve also allowed 26 passing touchdowns, good for 26th in the league. The teams that have allowed more? Philadelphia, Buffalo, San Diego, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Minnesota. Suffice it to say, teams with this big a hole in their secondary don’t generally make it to the playoffs.
Despite the inconsistencies of their defense, the Giants are NFC East champions because they do two things really, really well: throw the ball and pressure the passer. Pro Bowl quarterback Eli Manning is having a career year; he’s thrown for 4,587 yards entering Week 17, with 26 TDs and 16 interceptions. Manning has also led five fourth-quarter comebacks, and is blessed with the NFL’s most underrated corps of pass-catchers. Former undrafted free agent Victor Cruz has caught 76 balls for 1,358 yards (3rd in the league) and eight touchdowns, while ex-first-rounder Hakeem Nicks has 1,116 yards on 71 catches and six TDs. As is their custom, the Giants have also collected 42 sacks, fifth in the NFL.
Game-Breaker: The author of 15.5 of those sacks, Jason Pierre-Paul, is the most feared member of the Giants’ formidable defensive line. I wrote this about him after the Packers-Giants game several weeks ago:
The Packers had better hope they get Chad Clifton back to play left tackle in the playoffs, because Marshall Newhouse was just consistently destroyed by Pierre-Paul. JPP is one of those physical freaks of nature; he's tall already (6'6"), but he has unbelievably long arms that extend his reach. ESPN says he has an 81-inch wingspan. If you watch Pierre-Paul in his stance, before the ball is snapped, his arms are so long that he can put his hands on the ground and have his back still be nearly horizontal. He beat Newhouse with speed to the outside and destroyed him with power on the inside with equal ease.
Pierre-Paul, who also has 81 tackles, terrorized Aaron Rodgers in that December game. Whether his playoff opponent is a rusty Clifton or the still-learning Newhouse, you can bet that Rodgers would be under constant pressure from the right defensive end spot. And that’s not even counting his supporting cast. DEs Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Matthias Kiwanuka* and Dave Tollefson form the NFL’s deepest rotation at their position, and tackles Chris Canty and Linval Joseph aren’t bad either. Tuck had a sack of Aaron Rodgers when lined up at defensive tackle in December.
Weakest Link: The Packers have had just one sack in the last three games, but if anyone can help them put pressure on the QB, it’s right tackle Kareem McKenzie. The aging RT allowed a sack-fumble and several other pressures to Clay Matthews in their previous meeting, and has been the worst player on the Giants’ line all season long. If experience is any guide, the Packers will have serious trouble stopping the Giants’ deep passes unless Matthews is able to get consistent pressure on Manning. Matthews was able to beat McKenzie around the outside with speed on a fairly consistent basis, and there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be able to do it again in a remeet.
Why you must fear them: The Giants have the same quarterback, same running backs, and a similar pass-rush and receivers as their 2007 team. Those Giants, of course, knocked off the Packers 23-20 in the NFC Championship before toppling a then-undefeated Patriots team, 17-14. This is an experienced team that doesn’t shy away from a challenge. They embraced the underdog, road-warrior role in ’07, and would likely be just fine coming to Lambeau for a rematch.
Beyond that, they have a half-dozen defensive ends that could take advantage of the Packers’ injuries at offensive tackle, and they can exploit Green Bay’s terrible secondary. Yes, there’s the “Good Eli/Bad Eli” storyline that the New York media never shuts up about, and yes, he has thrown sixteen interceptions this year. But Manning threw for 347 yards against the Packers, completing 29 of 40 along with three touchdowns and one pick. And believe me, dear readers, Manning went deep on the Packers. A 42-yard bomb to Cruz against Tramon Williams, a 51-yard catch by Nicks and a 67-yard TD by TE Travis Beckum proved beyond a doubt that New York can exploit Green Bay’s secondary on deep post routes.
And in case throwing the ball deep wasn’t good enough, the Giants can run it as well. Their 20 carries on December 4th were good for 100 yards and one TD. Brandon Jacobs carried eight times for 59 yards and that score, a 7.4 yard average. That was without A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop in the lineup, but it proves that the Giants can run the ball on the Packers, even if they can’t run it on most other foes.
Why they’d be easy prey: As good as Manning was, Rodgers was even better. Three hundred and sixty-nine yards, four touchdowns, one interception and a game-winning drive that ended with a Mason Crosby field goal. Despite constant pressure from Pierre-Paul, Rodgers picked apart the Giants’ secondary (which has placed five cornerbacks on injured reserve so far this year). Jordy Nelson worked the sidelines against Corey Webster and Will Blackmon on four catches for 94 yards, Greg Jennings had a good game and Jermichael Finley showed the ability to dominate the Giants’ linebackers.
Beyond that aspect of the game, however, the Giants and Packers would be very evenly matched. The Packers are a little better at taking the ball away and running the ball, and the Giants are a lot better at rushing the passer. This game would likely come down to the final minute. The Giants talk smack, they’re confident and they’re coming off three wins in the last four games. They earned their way into the playoffs by knocking off the Cowboys twice and the Jets once. Beating them at Lambeau would not be an easy proposition.
*Kiwanuka was moved to linebacker this year, but still rushes the passer occasionally from a defensive end spot.