After ripping off an epic six-game winning streak, including a beatdown of perhaps the most insufferable team in the NFL, the Green Bay Packers’ reward is to face an opponent that ranks 26th in points scored per game and whose supposedly elite quarterback has a middling 86.0 rating. And yet, it still feels like a monumental task.
The New York Giants of recent vintage have a nasty habit of lulling their opponents into a false sense of security before catching fire in the playoffs and winning Super Bowls. The 2007 Giants were regarded as one of the worst teams in the playoff field, yet they ended the New England Patriots’ dreams of a perfect season. In 2011, the Giants somehow performed even worse, becoming the first team with a negative point differential to reach a Super Bowl. And they won again! In both years, they also ended the Packers’ season, most notably in 2011 when they had just gone 15-1. In fact, the one time they went into the playoffs in the last ten years as a legitimate contender, in 2008, they bowed out in the divisional round against the Eagles.
So, point is, the stats may not matter in this game. But I’m going to look at them anyway, because in this matchup, they’re rather interesting.
Green Bay, as usual, is riding its offense to success. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers turned in yet another spectacular season, throwing for 4,428 yards and 40 touchdowns. During the team’s four-game losing streak in midseason, many blamed Rodgers’ play on the Packers’ losses. But in reality, he completed 64% of his passes for 12 TDs and only 3 INTs during the streak. Wide receiver Jordy Nelson took some time in returning to full strength after last year’s season-ending injury, but has returning to his world-beating self of late. Green Bay’s receiving corps isn’t as deep as it usually is, but when WR2 Davante Adams is on, he can take over a game, as he did against Chicago, when he had 13 receptions for 132 yards and 2 TDs. Tight end Jared Cook is also capable of pitching in. As it was during the team’s last Super Bowl run in 2011, the running game is in a state of flux. Running back Eddie Lacy was on the verge of a renaissance when he was shut down for the season with a bum ankle. The struggles of James Starks and waiver pickup Christine Michael forced the Packers to try any number of possible solutions, and erstwhile receiver Ty Montgomery appears to be the answer for now. Montgomery has averaged 5.9 yards per carry in an admittedly small sample size of carries, but has proven valuable in the team’s recent wins. In many ways, Montgomery is the opposite of Lacy, with more emphasis on quickness and elusiveness than raw, straight-up power.
Carrying that idea forward, the Giants could also be thought of as a mirror image of the Packers, having ridden their defense to success. The Giants have allowed the second-fewest points in the league, and their defense is capable both of pressuring the quarterback and defending the pass. Defensive ends Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul had 8.5 and 7 sacks, respectively. Pierre-Paul’s story has been especially inspiring in recent years, given that he returned to form after blowing off most of his right index finger in a horrific fireworks accident. The Giants’ secondary is loaded too, with cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and safety Landon Collins leading the way. Collins led the team in tackles with 125 and was second to Cromartie with 5 interceptions.
Contrast that with the Giants’ offense, which has struggled to move the ball all year. Their running game is in similar disarray to the Packers’, the difference being that New York never really found a Montgomery-like figure to kick-start it. Their leading rusher, Rashad Jennings, only put up 3.3 yards per carry. Despite the pedestrian stats I referred to earlier, quarterback Eli Manning has been a big reason why the Giants have been able to go on improbable playoff runs over the years. His reputation has been built on clutch performances when his team needs him most. He’ll have a great weapon in receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who pulled together 1,367 yards and 10 TDs. If Manning can get one other receiver to catch fire for just a few games (perhaps Victor Cruz can rediscover his elite form, for instance), the Giants could be difficult to stop.
Again with the mirror image theme, the Packers’ defense is kinda like the Giants’ offense: not great in the statistics department (and largely to blame for the losing streak), but has a few stars and a few other players that could make opponents’ lives a living hell if they get on a hot streak. One of the reasons the defense was so bad at different times this year was a rash of injuries. At one point, the Packers were playing with all second stringers at the cornerback and safety positions. Standout linebacker Clay Matthews also missed significant time.
Even at mostly full strength, the defense will live and die by its front seven. Linebacker Nick Perry had a breakout season with 11 sacks, and Julius Peppers showed he has plenty left in the tank by chipping in 7.5. Matthews also showed that his pass-rushing skills have not deteriorated due to injury. The Packers actually ranked 7th in rushing yards allowed per game this year. If these players can pressure Manning into mistakes, they’ll give them a real shot at victory. If not, the 31st ranked pass defense may give away the game.
Neither team seems to have a huge advantage on special teams. Robbie Gould has made all of his field goals for the Giants after replacing Josh “Wife Beater” Brown in midseason. Packers kicker Mason Crosby has largely put his mid-career yips behind him, and is a threat to make a field goal from any distance. The Giants probably have a slightly better punter, as Brad Wing was an all-time great at the position in college and is solid at the professional level too.
I’ve a feeling this one is going to be a tense, low-scoring battle. When the game is a coin flip, it’s usually wiser to go with the home team, so I’m going to do that here. Packers 17, Giants 14.
As far as the rest of the league, the New England Patriots seem to be the most balanced in this Year of No Great Teams. I generally hate picking a top seed to win it all, because it’s too easy and never seems to come true. But I like them to win it over the Dallas Cowboys, who have struggled of late but seem like the most balanced team in the NFC.