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The Week That Was

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Playoff Preview: Giants at Packers

Part 4 of our team-by-team breakdown of this weekend's NFL playoff action

Is it 2007 all over again for the Giants? The easy comparison everybody’s making for this year’s Giants team is to the same team that won Super Bowl XLII, thanks to a hot streak that began with a 38-35 loss to an undefeated team with the league’s best quarterback and likely MVP. Those Giants went on to win four consecutive road games en route to a stunning Super Bowl upset. So why not these guys?

Well, the Giants may have that kind of run in them yet, but the narrative comparing these Giants to that team is pretty thin. Those Giants played out their 38-35 loss to the Patriots in the final week of the regular season. The idea that they might have gathered momentum from the loss is pretty tenuous, but you can at least make a case for it by virtue of Big Blue then winning four consecutive games. These Giants followed their 38-35 loss against the Packers with a pretty ugly stretch of football. They beat the Cowboys in the game where Tony Romo failed to hit an open Miles Austin for the game-sealing third-down conversion, lost by 13 points at home to the 5-11 Redskins, and then beat the Jets despite enduring a 9-of-27 performance from Eli Manning. Manning and his Giants have looked great in home victories over the Cowboys and Falcons over the past two weeks, but the idea that they somehow got some sense of self-belief from the Packers loss is a little silly. What, was it a spell they were storing in their bag of holding for Week 17 and beyond? Come on.

What the Giants did show against the Packers in Week 13 is that they can hang with the best team in football. We’ve harped on how important it is to avoid turnovers against Green Bay in the past, and the difference between the Giants winning and losing that Sunday might very well have been the 39-yard pick-six that Manning served up to Clay Matthews in the second quarter. Teams were 79-26 this year when they avoided even a single turnover, and the Giants were 4-0 in such games. We noted in our article from earlier this year that the Packers had forced a turnover in every game of their lengthy winning streak and had bookended that streak with takeaway-free losses, but let’s go a step further. The Packers haven’t won a single game in which they didn’t force a takeaway since December of 2005. 2005! They have played 10 games since without forcing a turnover and lost all ten of them. Perhaps the Giants need to operate the Kneel to Win offense.

OK. So playing a game without any turnovers is easier said than done. What can the Giants do, then, to compete with the Packers in Lambeau Field?

Giants on Offense

In that blueprint we linked to above, one of our suggestions was to attack the middle of the Packers defense, where they’re relatively weak. The Giants did so in the first game between these two teams, and they’ll use matchups to do so again on Sunday.

The first big play of the game, a 67-yard touchdown pass to backup tight end Travis Beckum, was an example of how the Giants will try to stretch the weak links of the Packers defense. Although Beckum isn’t known as a dominating receiver, the Giants split him out into the slot in an attempt to get the Packers to declare how they might try to defend him. In this case, it worked, as Green Bay moved safety Charlie Peprah into the slot to handle him while leaving a single high safety in centerfield for support. That’s a Cover-1 look. With single coverage on Hakeem Nicks on the left side of the field, Nicks runs a deep post that is designed to attract the deep safety’s attention. It does. Meanwhile, matched up one-on-one versus the extremely limited Peprah, Beckum runs a double move, feigning an out pattern before heading upfield on a go route. Peprah’s easily beaten, Manning puts the ball right in stride, and a couple of spun-around defensive backs later, the Giants have a 7-0 lead.

What does it take for a double move from your backup tight end to develop? Why, that would be pass protection. Manning has struggled this year against teams with consistently effective pass rushes (the Redskins serving as a bizarre example), but the Giants really shouldn’t be too concerned about that against Green Bay. Manning dropped back 41 times during the first Giants-Packers tilt and was sacked just once, losing zero yards. That game was also played without the presence of starting center David Baas,1 who would presumably be an upgrade as an interior pass defender.

And honestly, it’s less about what the Giants can do to stop the pass rush and more about what the Packers can do to try to generate one. Despite the presence of Clay Matthews, the Packers have sacked opposing quarterbacks on just 4.4 percent of dropbacks, the lowest sack rate in all of football. Last year, they sacked quarterbacks 8.2 percent of the time, which was third-best in football. Part of the decline is from Matthews — who saw his sack total across 15 games go from 13.5 to a mere six — but part of it is also from the players around him. The team’s defensive linemen combined for 19 sacks last season, with defensive end Cullen Jenkins pacing the group with seven. Jenkins left for Philadelphia this offseason, and the Packers haven’t gotten the same sort of pressure. The front three and their backups have combined for just six sacks this year. If the Packers can’t find at least a smidgen of pressure to apply to Manning, he’ll sit around in the pocket and eventually find a mismatch to exploit.

Matthews’ pick-six came on a play, though, where Manning couldn’t find that mismatch. After two consecutive runs for first downs by Brandon Jacobs (who had eight carries for 59 yards on the day), the Giants went with play-action and Manning attempted to find yet another open receiver downfield. When nobody was there and linebacker D.J. Smith got in his face with a green dog blitz, he scrambled in an attempt to make the angle for his checkdown a little easier, but that was an easy tell for Matthews, playing zone out by the sideline, to go ahead and jump the attempted pass to Bradshaw. Bradshaw could have helped by attempting to come back toward the ball or run his route farther downfield when Manning began to scramble, but he stayed flat-footed, and it was an easy pick-six for Matthews.

At this point, the Giants are probably better off using Brandon Jacobs as their featured back while turning to Bradshaw as a change of pace. Bradshaw returned from a four-game absence with a broken foot during the first Giants-Packers game, and he was far less effective than Jacobs, running 11 times for 38 yards. In the six games since his return, Bradshaw has averaged just 3.8 yards per carry and has served as a bare-bones safety valve in the passing game, with just 79 yards on his 15 receptions. Over that same stretch, Jacobs has averaged 5.4 yards per carry with a roughly similar workload (although he has a total of just three catches for 21 yards). The Giants would prefer to have Bradshaw in the backfield because of his relative versatility, but Jacobs has been the far more effective back.

On the other hand, if you watched the broadcast of last week’s Giants-Falcons game, you might have heard the announcers refer to Jacobs as a player who “loosens up the defense.” It’s one of those old football storylines; see big running back, watch him hit defensive linemen over and over again, then enjoy success in the fourth quarter. Jacobs promptly proved the commentary right by breaking off consecutive runs for 14 and 15 yards to start the fourth quarter.

Is it actually true? Well, yes and no. Jacobs averaged just 2.8 yards per carry during the fourth quarter this season, by far his lowest average of any of the four. That’s not an outlying trend, either, if we look back at his cumulative performance over the past three years. It’s not giving an enormous boost to Bradshaw, either:

That leaves the Giants in a conundrum. They need to take shots down the field to rack up the kind of points that will be needed to beat the Packers, but that leaves them susceptible to turnovers. It’s almost like the Packers planned it this way, huh?

One benefit for the Packers: They will be healthier on defense. During the first Giants game, the Packers were without three key players at linebacker: A.J. Hawk, Desmond Bishop, and Frank Zombo. Hawk and Bishop should both be in the starting lineup on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Giants will get Baas back into the lineup and should enjoy a full game from Mario Manningham, who also missed that Week 13 contest.

Packers on Offense

The Packers may also be healthier on offense, depending on the effectiveness of their corps of returning players. In that first game, they were missing left tackle Chad Clifton and right guard Josh Sitton. Both of them returned by the end of the regular season, and the week off should have given them a little extra rest. On the other hand, right tackle Bryan Bulaga missed the final two games of the year with a knee injury, and while he’s expected to play on Sunday, he might not be quite 100 percent. Obviously, having a pair of healthy, effective offensive tackles versus a frequently devastating Giants pass rush is a prerequisite for the Packers winning this game.

Equally important is the return of Greg Jennings, who sliced up the Giants in Week 13. Jennings missed the final three games of the year with an MCL injury, but said that he could have played in Week 17 if it had been a meaningful contest. It’s better for the Packers that he got to rest. Jennings was huge against the Giants during the first game, catching seven passes for 94 yards with a touchdown to go along with a 20-yard defensive pass interference penalty. It was interesting to see how the Giants chose to handle Jennings during the first game. Against most teams, the Giants will have top cornerback Corey Webster follow the opposing team’s top wideout around the field, providing easier assignments to the likes of Aaron Ross and Prince Amukamara. That didn’t happen against the Packers, as the Giants kept Webster, Ross, and Amukamara on specific sides of the field for most of the day. As a result, Jennings circled through different roles within the offense, often switching from play-to-play, and Aaron Rodgers used him as a mismatch worth targeting when Jennings got away from Webster.

In addition to keeping their cornerbacks in one spot, the Giants’ strategy in the first game was to play a fair amount of two-deep coverage, hoping that they could eliminate the big plays and occupy Rodgers’ receivers long enough for the pass rush to get home. It did pressure Rodgers a fair amount, but the Packers quarterback has the economical footwork and pocket presence to make even the best pass rushes disappear. The Giants only sacked him twice in 48 dropbacks, and when they weren’t able to contain Rodgers, he scrambled for 32 yards and three first downs on four “carries.”

That plan left one player the Giants would struggle to cover, tight end Jermichael Finley. Finley helped them out with a number of drops on the day, but he still finished with six catches for 87 yards and a touchdown. The Giants tried to get a variety of players on and over Finley, including safeties (Deon Grant) and linebackers (Michael Boley) alike, but the guy who saw too much of Finley was rookie sixth-round pick Jacquian Williams. On the 24-yard catch-and-run that started the lethal final drive for the Packers, it was Williams in coverage on Finley. A veteran linebacker might have accepted that Finley was going to catch a quick out and get out of bounds for a small gain, but Williams decided to dive for the football and got neither the football nor Finley. Rodgers repeatedly went after Williams when Finley could get lined up against him, and if the Giants go the same route on Sunday, expect more of the same. Rodgers’ one interception in the game did come at the hands of Chase Blackburn on a crossing pattern gone wrong, so the Giants might try to use a little more of Blackburn as a robber. The idea of Finley versus Blackburn in man coverage, though, should give Giants fans nightmares.

The Packers will also want to hope that a healthy offensive line produces a more effective running game than the dismal performance put up by their backs in Week 13. The combination of Ryan Grant, John Kuhn, Brandon Saine, and James Starks gained just 57 yards on 24 carries. That’s 2.4 yards per carry; nobody with a passing game as good as the Packers should ever see their running backs average 2.4 yards per carry in a game. Last year, the Packers turned their running game over to Starks in the playoffs after giving him just 29 carries during the regular season, so there’s no predicting what they might do with the carry splits this year. They should be better than 2.4 yards per carry again, but if they can run the ball in the second half, the Packers might have a much better shot at closing out the Giants.

Special Teams

Green Bay’s special teams were above average in every category besides punting, but they don’t have one dominant facet of their game that seems likely to have an obvious impact against the Giants. Rookie returner Randall Cobb returned both a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns this year, but he also fumbled away a kickoff and two punts over the course of the season.

Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes, of course, will have mixed memories of Green Bay. In the playoff game between these two teams in 2007, Tynes missed a 43-yarder with seven minutes to go and a 36-yarder at the buzzer, the latter of which would have put the Giants into the Super Bowl. When Brett Favre threw an interception on the second play of overtime, the Giants predictably played ultra-conservative football and forced Tynes to try a 47-yarder. For those of you who watched the Falcons last week and think that two failures should eliminate the possibility of trying something for a third time, well, Tynes promptly lined up and hit the most difficult kick of the three.

The Prediction

The Giants are certainly capable of upsetting the Packers. If the Green Bay offensive line isn’t healthy, the Giants can dominate them at the line of scrimmage and force Aaron Rodgers into a series of undercooked throws.2 If they avoid turnovers, Eli Manning’s offense should have no trouble marching up and down the field on the Packers defense. If the Giants do both of those things, they can get a lead and hold on to it all day. The problem, though, is that doing both those things at the same time against a superior team on the road is exceedingly difficult. The Giants are far from hopeless, but this is far from 2007. Packers 34, Giants 24.

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Previously from Bill Barnwell:

The Fabulous and the Flops of Wild-Card Weekend
Tim Tebow Silences All
Cashing Out Some Preseason NFL Bets

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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