When the Giants play the Packers on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game, it will be a rematch of a Sept. 16 game in New York when the Packers easily beat the Giants, 35-13. Since that loss, New York has won 12 of its next 16 games.
The Giants' pass rush, running game and the improved play of Eli Manning are the biggest reasons for the turnaround. They took advantage of an extra opportunity last week by going into Dallas after two regular-season losses and beating the Cowboys by holding them to 28 fewer points than the last time the two teams met in Dallas.
Green Bay finished the season with the No. 2 offense in the NFL and the No. 11 defense. The first thing coach Mike McCarthy accomplished was to reestablish home-field advantage at Lambeau Field. He accomplished that by building a very good defense, balancing the run/pass ratio and getting Brett Favre to play within himself and stop taking unnecessary chances.
Last week, when the Seahawks jumped out to a 14-0 lead, Favre answered with a 7-for-8 passing attack and a running game that generated 53 yards on six carries, and the score was tied, 14-14. Green Bay never looked back and won, 42-20.
The Giants' running game is the backbone of their offense, but they are up against a Packers defense that gave up 3.9 yards a run this season and only six touchdowns on the ground. Last week, Seattle rushed for 1.6 yards per attempt. Manning will have to play a very important role in this game if the Giants are to get to the Super Bowl.
1. Packers RT Mark Tauscher vs. Giants DE Mike Strahan: Strahan has been playing his best football the past few weeks and, as he says, "I'm not ready for it to end." He is up against a solid tackle in Tauscher, who neutralized Seahawks DE Patrick Kerney in the divisional round. Strahan didn't get to Favre in any of his 38 pass attempts in Week 2, but he will have to in this game. The footing could be bad, and that will affect the pass rush. Look for Strahan to mix up his rushes and possibly get better results slanting down inside, then working the outside edge.
2. Packers RB Ryan Grant vs. Giants MLB Antonio Pierce: Pierce led the team in tackles with 12 the first time these teams met, but Grant didn't have a carry in that game. Grant is terrific running the outside zone stretch play and cutting it back. Pierce can't afford to over-run the play and find himself out of position. Patience is the key against Grant and then solid tackling, which Pierce does well. Grant should get 25-30 carries, and Pierce needs to be in on 80 percent of the tackles.
3. Packers WR Donald Driver vs. Giants CB Corey Webster: The Giants secondary is beat up, especially at the corner position. In order to slow down the Packers' running game, the Giants are going to have to drop a safety in the box often. That will leave Webster on an island with Driver. Last week, Webster did a nice job on Terrell Owens, who was playing hurt. This week, a healthy Driver is a more dangerous situation. If Webster plays off-coverage, Favre will check to the slant route for Driver. If Webster plays up and tight, then Driver will work the go route. This could be a tough day for the Giants corner.
4. Packers DE Aaron Kampman vs. Giants RT Kareem McKenzie: Kampman had a sack on Manning the last time these teams met and McKenzie knows he's up against a guy who never looks tired. Last week, McKenzie struggled out of his stance to double-kick vs. a wide rush and gave up a sack. Look for Kampman on sure passing downs to widen his stance and try and lure McKenzie out wide. If he gets him to come outside, Kampman will cross his face or bull rush him. McKenzie will hold up most of the game but the crowd noise will make it tough to keep Kampman off Manning all game long.
5. Packers CB Charles Woodson vs. Giants WR Plaxico Burress: Burress deserves a lot of credit for playing through an injury all year long. He really can't get deep like he did earlier in the season. Burress did have a touchdown reception the first time these teams met, but he only has five receptions for 43 yards and zero TDs in the playoffs. Look for Woodson to play him tight to take away the slant and dare him to go deep. Green Bay plays more man-to-man coverage than any team left in the playoffs.
When the Giants have the ball
New York would love to come out and feed the ball to Jacobs. An ideal situation in the first half would be 15-18 carries for 70 yards and a score from the 265-pound back. Manning is only averaging 23 passes per game in the playoffs and, with no Jeremy Shockey and a less-than-100-percent Burress, that's the right way to play this game. Can they stick with that game plan if the Packers get off to a fast start? That's a different story.
The Giants' offensive line is a solid blocking unit, and the Packers did not have to face Jacobs the first time they played. In fact, Derrick Ward was the ball carrier and he only had eight carries in the first half. Look for the Giants to run an inside power game on early downs when Cullen Jenkins is lined up at end. In passing situations, when Jenkins moves inside, the draw play and the screen game toward Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila look like better choices. As for the downfield throwing game, Manning is going to see tight man coverage on his wide receivers with Woodsen and Al Harris locking up Burress and Toomer. Look for some double moves to shake a receiver free, but it will be difficult with the lack of speed and quickness from the Giants receivers. There may be solid opportunities in the three-wideout sets to work Steve Smith and TE Kevin Boss against the safeties.
The Packers get solid play from their linebackers (Brady Poppinga, Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk) in the running game, and they are not afraid to dial up a blitz for any of them. If defensive coordinator Bob Sanders gets a good feel for the run game early, he will send a linebacker or two to meet Jacobs in the backfield.
When the Packers have the ball
Green Bay will try to take advantage of the beat-up Giants secondary early and often. Favre has speed and size on the field with his three-wideout package. Greg Jennings is an emerging star who caught two touchdowns last week against a couple of excellent Seattle corners. Driver is very tough to cover and James Jones along with TE Donald Lee give Favre so many options down the field. Any reaction by the Giants to play coverage instead of the run first will put Grant in play. Last week, he broke the Packers' playoff record for rushing yards with 201.
Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has a fire-zone scheme that will bring pressure against the run and the pass. His instincts are to attack good offenses, and he gets great execution from his players. In the Week 2 matchup, the Giants defense really didn't know how to run the whole package, but they do now. New York led the NFL with 53 sacks this season after a very slow start. The Giants will disrupt the running game and they will get to Favre more than once.
The bottom line
The Packers can beat you a number of different ways, and they are healthy. The Giants don't have the speed at receiver, and they aren't healthy in the secondary. This game is supposed to be played in frigid conditions, which could affect the play-calling. Favre is superb in home playoff games, and now he faces the best road team in the NFC. It should be a lot closer than the first meeting, but New York's great season comes to an end at Lambeau Field as the Packers win it, 24-14.