The New York Giants travel to play the Green Bay Packers in a Sunday Late game that is also the premier matchup of NFL Wild Card Weekend. The Packers beat the Giants earlier this season also at home, 23-16, while overcoming a rare two interception game from Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay leads the all-time series 32-26-2.
However, heading into this weekend, discussion will inevitably revolve around the fact that the Giants have beaten Green Bay twice in a row in Lambeau in the playoffs, both times against Packers teams that earned a bye with their play over the season. First, in the 2007 playoffs the Giants won 23-20 in sub-zero temperatures in a game that saw Brett Favre throw his final back-breaking interception as a Packer. Second, following the 2011 season that saw the Packers go 15-1 and have one of the best offensive seasons of all time, the Giants were able to stymie Aaron Rodgers and the passing attack and win 37-20.
Heading into this game the Packers, winners of six straight games, will once again be reliant on their offense (8th in yards, 4th in points), and the Giants will be betting their defense (10th in yards, 2nd in points allowed) is strong enough to hold off the onslaught. Here are a few key matchups that are likely to sway Sunday’s outcome.
1. Its all about God(gers)
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers started the season slow before finishing on an absolute tear (1667 yards on 71.0% completion rate and 15 touchdowns, no interceptions over the final six weeks, with a rating of 121.0). It should be no surprise that the team performance mirrored his own, as Rodgers has been the driving force behind the team for the better part of a decade.
Unfortunately, he is also at times flummoxed by solid pass defenses that do not make mistakes. While the prior version of giant killers (get it?) teams relied primarily on pass rush to out-perform their Packer opponents, the current version is stronger in rush defense (T: 3rd) and the secondary. They have three very capable cornerbacks in Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and rookie Eli Apple. Two of those players (Rodgers-Cromartie and Apple) suffered groin injuries, with Apple playing only seven snaps, in the first outing, and the Giants still slowed Green Bay down.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnulo played to those strengths in the earlier matchup this season, blitzing Rodgers only nine times. And while the Packers won, holding them to 23 points again would be a success for the Giants, and give them a very good chance to win the ballgame.
2. Guess Who’s Back
However, Rodgers has a significant weapon who appears to be back to playing at nearly as high a level as ever: Jordy Nelson. Nelson was quiet in the first matchup with the Giants, but was coming off of an ACL injury that caused him to miss the entire 2015 season. He now appears fully recovered, and finished the season with 1,257 yards and 14 touchdowns. In the first game this season, Randall Cobb was able to catch nine passes for 108 yards from the slot, but both Nelson and his counterpart Davante Adams were slowed on the outside. Adams, too, has progressed throughout the season, and outside of some high-profile drops against the Bears has also been a real weapon for Rodgers. Likewise, tight end Jared Cook has finished the season nicely as a receiving weapon.
With due respect to those players, however, Nelson getting open and stretching the field will be key for the Packers. He does not need to have a huge day receiving, but does need to make the Giants feel threatened and get the secondary outside of its comfort zone. If he can do so, the Packers should be able to exploit resulting matchups around the rest of the field.
3. Packers Secondary
The Packers secondary has played atrocious football for much of the season, particularly after Sam Shields suffered a concussion early in the season, and was sent to injured reserve. Last week additional injuries to Quentin Rollins (neck) and Damarious Randall and Makinton Dorleant (each with knee injuries) led the Packers to playing Safety Morgan Burnett on the outside, coupled with safety/nickel cornerback Micah Hyde. Both filled in admirably for a short while, but Odell Beckham, Jr. is coming to town. Even when the secondary is relatively healthy, they still struggle to succeed on a consistent basis.
Furthermore, for all the reasons noted above, this may not be an easy game for the Packers to win by simply running up the score. Unfortunately if injuries do not resolve themselves, there is no magical fix for the Packers. Even if Randall and Rollins both play (the latter seems a very remote possibility), neither has proven capable of covering someone like Beckham play in, play out. The Giants offense has been sputtering all season, but has every reason to believe they can have success throwing on Green Bay.
I do not expect either team to run away with this game, and believe it will be decided in the fourth quarter. Despite injuries in the Packers defensive backfield and the recent history of these teams, Rodgers is playing at such a high level going into the playoffs that the Packers should have the edge over a flawed Giants team. Packers 27, Giants 23.