Top 20 Games of 2011

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Game 10: Packers at Giants Week 13

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Everything is cyclical.

Bell bottoms were in, out for two decades, in again, then out. Record Players were all the rage, then thrown out for jamboxes, then hip again for recently graduated frat guys who wanted to show their dates they had depth. Creed was in, then out, and now… well, they’re still out.

In the NFL, premium quarterbacks were all the rage with Dan Marino, John Elway, Troy Aikman, Steve Young and Jim Kelly all playing at the same time. Positional dominance flickered circa Y2K, with Ryan Leaf, Tim Couch, Akili Smith and Kordell Stewart under center. Now, there is quality at the position throughout much of the league, including Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay and Eli Manning in New York.

But before we get to those two, there’s another facet of pro football that comes and goes every few years: A team flirting with perfection deep into a season. And in these instances, one game always emerges as, purportedly, the biggest threat to the perfect run.

Who could forget the Dolphins hosting the 12-0 Bears on Monday Night Football in 1985? Or the Giants doing their damndest to halt the 15-0 Patriots from doing the unthinkable -- going 16-0 in the salary cap era?

The G-Men found themselves in a similar position last December, looking to knock off the 11-0 Packers in our No. 10 game of 2011.

The buildup to Green Bay-New York I was palpable, as league observers saw a schedule devoid of remaining challenges for the undefeated Packers. Following their visit to Jersey, Green Bay would face the mediocre Raiders, the struggling Chiefs, a Cutler-less Bears squad, and then the Lions at home. The last game could be tough, in theory, but who knew if Detroit would have anything to play for in Week 17. And the Packers had just made mincemeat of the Detroit secondary on Thanksgiving. No thanks, I won’t have another.

As it turned out, the Packers did go on to lose one of those remaining games, but not this Dec. 4 thriller in the New Meadowlands, when the Giants gave the best team in football all it could handle -- but fell just short.

What was so fascinating about this game was the similar thread it carried from that Sunday-night thriller to close out the 2007 season, when the Giants almost knocked off the undefeated Patriots. Similar in that the Giants ended up losing both games by the exact same score (38-35) in front of raucous home crowds. Similar in that the Giants were taken down each time by a quarterback playing out of his freaking mind. And similar in that both Giants teams went on to exact revenge in the postseason.

New York’s win over New England in Super Bowl XLII was one of the biggest upsets in NFL history, and came about because the defense disrupted Tom Brady with constant pressure. Whereas in the 2007 season finale, the eventual NFL MVP had gone 32-for-42 for 356 yards, and was sacked just once.

Fast forward to 2011, and once again, the Giants’ pass rush couldn’t harass the eventual NFL MVP enough in the regular-season showdown. Rodgers was sacked only twice and had all day to throw the football on several occasions, racking up 369 passing yards and four touchdowns.

Of course, Manning countered with 347 passing yards and three touchdowns of his own.

That’s the kind of game this was -- a high-octane, fan-friendly shootout. And this sucker was gonna be won by whichever quarterback had the ball last. Unfortunately for the Giants, who entered the game on a three-game losing streak, it would be Rodgers.

Big Blue’s offense gave the Pack fits, racking up 447 yards while averaging a whopping 7.3 yards per play. Every time Green Bay went up, the Giants came screaming back.

Manning engineered three scoring drives in four second-half possessions, throwing a touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks (more on that unbelievable play below), manufacturing a field goal, and then hitting Nicks for six more points. The Giants tacked on a two-point conversion after that final score to tie the game at 35-35, leaving Rodgers just 58 seconds to answer. And answer, he did.

Rodgers hit Jermichael Finley for 24 yards. Then he delivered a beautiful, 27-yard pass to Jordy Nelson (more below). Two plays later, Rodgers put the ball on Greg Jennings’ person for 18 more. Suddenly, Green Bay had the ball on the 12-yard line with 11 seconds left.

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Run down the clock, call timeout and trot out Mason Crosby.

Ballgame.

An easy-as-you-please drive delivered by the game’s finest was a fitting end to what was allegedly the last regular-season game Green Bay could lose. Of course, the Pack flamed out two weeks later in Kansas City. And amazingly enough, the Giants delivered the coup de grace in a 37-20 playoff beatdown of the Packers in Green Bay, catapulting New York to its second Super Bowl title in the past five seasons.

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Head scratcher(s): For all of their premium play, both Rodgers and Manning would like to have a couple throws back.

For Manning, the “Can I please rescind my offer?” play came on the opening snap of the second quarter, when Clay Matthews intercepted his pass to Ahmad Bradshaw and took it to the house. Matthews diagnosed the route, exploded and made the game 14-10, Packers. If you don’t think this pass rusher is quick, check out the play again.

Then came Rodgers’ equally boneheaded pass, when he failed to see Giants linebacker Chase Blackburn on the backside and essentially threw it right to him. That turnover led to a Brandon Jacobs touchdown run, giving the Giants the lead once again, 17-14.

Can’t-miss play 1: Due to Victor Cruz’s incredible 2011 campaign and Mario Manningham’s memorable catch in Super Bowl XLVI -- our No. 12 game of 2011 it’s easy to forget what a supreme playmaker Hakeem Nicks is. It’s equally easy to underestimate how spectacular a short touchdown reception can be. Take another look at Nicks’ one-handed grab on one of the better cornerbacks in NFL history, Charles Woodson. The catch was so smooth that even Woodson gave Nicks a post-touchdown pound of approval.

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Can’t-miss play 2: There’s little doubt that 2011 was the year of the quarterback. Look no further than Drew Brees, Brady and Matt Stafford all eclipsing 5,000 yards passing (with Brees setting a new single-season record). Rodgers, not to be outdone, set an NFL record with his 122.5 passer rating. And his 27-yard completion to Nelson on the Packers’ game-winning drive was truly a thing of beauty.

I only saw two other throws that big-time last season: Manning-to-Manningham, while standing on the catwalk at Lucas Oil Stadium, and another … which will be featured in our No. 9 game of 2011.

Best player on the field: Do we even have to ask this question? Rodgers made Giants defenders look silly all day ... and then calmly delivered a game-winning drive.

Record breaker: Rodgers again. The best quarterback in the NFL (OK, arguably) ran his NFL record streak of consecutive games with a passer rating over 100 to 12. For accounting sake, Rodgers’ in-game rating was a sterling 106.2. Rodgers’ streak was snapped the following week, though, when his passer rating dropped all the way down to 96.7 in a 46-16 shellacking of the Raiders. Slacker.

Why this game is No. 10: Packers-Giants Week 13 was entertaining from stem to stern, with very few lulls in the action. Rodgers and Manning played at such a high level -- each recorded a passer rating north of 100 -- that the game took on the feel of a heavyweight title bout. Throw in the fact that Big Blue would eventually knock off Green Bay in the playoffs, and this game looks even cooler in the rearview.

Why not higher?: As much as this game was worth wrapping your arms around, it might have ranked a bit higher if either secondary looked like it could play ball. It also might have jumped a smidge if New York had actually pulled off the upset, instead of withering on defense. Still, what a fun watch this was.

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