Don't let the embrace-debate enthusiasts fool you. The football stands on its own merits in the most riveting clash of Wild Card Weekend.
The Packers, a perennial NFC powerhouse, were left for dead leading up to Thanksgiving. Their two-time MVP quarterback faced more scrutiny in the previous month than the past 11 seasons combined. The injury-ravaged defense reached a level of ineptitude not seen since the pre-Lombardi days. The Green Bay faithful were ready to run team architects Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy out of town.
The only way out of that 4-6 hole was to run the table over the final six games. The defense welcomed back reinforcements, Ty Montgomery metamorphosed from an afterthought wide receiver to the No. 1 tailback and -- most importantly -- Aaron Rodgerschanneled his MVP magic as the sport's unparalleled quarterback talent.
Just as Rodgers was reascending, New York's defense began to separate from the pack as the class of the league, compensating for a dysfunctional offense. Led by a star-studded secondary, the Giants have allowed an NFL-low 15.3 points per game since Halloween, steadily and significantly improving throughout the season.
Both units are cresting, reaching the height of their powers as the stakes rise with each passing week. Which one will carry that momentum over to the Divisional Round at Dallas or Atlanta?
Players under pressure
Eli Manning, QB, Giants: Evaluate the game, not the name. The stone-cold version of Eli Manning who twice marched through Green Bay on the way to the Super Bowl is long gone, replaced by a liability under center. Reminiscent of his infamous bout with arm fatigue four years ago, Manning's passes have been diving at the feet of his receivers since midseason. His utter inability to throw with authority beyond 15 yards has all but eliminated intermediate and deep passes from the aerial attack, putting the burden on an angle-erasing Odell Beckham to turn simple slant routes into game-altering plays. While Beckham has accounted for a higher percentage of his team's receiving yards than any NFL player, a regressing Manning has authored more turnover-worthy plays than any quarterback.
The Giants 26th-ranked offense has not reached 20 points in five games, a stretch of futility unmatched since Manning's 2004 rookie season. No team ranked worse than 20th has ever made it to the Super Bowl, per NFL Research. If the G-Men are going to escape Lambeau Field this time, Manning will have to hit more throws than he has in any game since October.
Packers cornerbacks: If there's tonic for what's ailing Eli, it can be found in Green Bay's forgiving secondary. Each of Matt Barkley, Sam Bradford and Matthew Stafford cleared 340 passing yards in the past three weeks as Damarious Randall earned a benching and Quinten Rollinshemorrhaged big plays. After watching Adam Thielen and Marvin Jones decimate this defensive backfield for 200 yards apiece, it's natural to wonder if Beckham can tip the field on Sunday.
Matchup to watch
Aaron Rodgers vs. New York's defense: Will there be a better matchup throughout the postseason? The hottest passing attack versus the hottest defense. The reigning Offensive Player of the Month facing a leading Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Steve Spagnuolo's exotic blitzes versus an improvisational magician, capable of slicing and dicing defenses inside the pocket and on the run.
Led by strong safety Landon Collins, the NFL's premier cornerback duo in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins and the disruptive defensive-line tandem of Damon "Snacks" Harrison and Olivier Vernon, the Giants defense is even more dominant than commonly believed. Is there a weak spot to be exploited within an outfit that finished the regular season ranked first in touchdowns allowed, second in points per game and passer rating and third in rushing?
The Packers will counter with Rodgers' diverse receiving corps, featuring Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Jared Cook. A rejuvenatedJordy Nelson has corralled a staggering 83 percent of his targets over the past six weeks, up from 56.4 percent in the first 10 games. Rodgers recently identified Adams as the team's best route runner, high praise considering Nelson is a true master of the craft. Cook has been a secret weapon, bedeviling defenses down the seam on third downs.
Sunday's showdown is shaping up as a carbon copy of the Giants' 24-14 loss to a more talented Steelers squad in early December. With apologies to Beckham and an outstanding defense, the 2017 version of Manning just doesn't have the arm to stand toe-to-toe with Rodgers five years after outdueling Green Bay's golden gun en route to Super Bowl glory.