Michael Cohen and Ryan Wood discuss the many differences between the Packers and Giants now compared to when they played each other in October. (Jan. 4, 2017) USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
GREEN BAY – Eddie Lacy, now on injured reserve, was the Green Bay Packers' leading rusher. Ty Montgomery was a backup wide receiver. Jared Cook was inactive.
The New York Giants were floundering at 2-2, on their way to 2-3. Running back Paul Perkins was just a rookie trying to make his way on special teams. Cornerback Dominic Rodgers-Cromartie was in and out of the lineup because of a groin injury, and a hamstring injury forced first-round corner Eli Apple to exit after just seven snaps.
Technically, Sunday’s wild-card playoff game at Lambeau Field is a rematch of the Packers' 23-16 win against the Giants on Oct. 9. For as many changes as both teams have seen since their Week 5 game, it’s a rematch in name only.
These are two different teams.
“I just think they’re a much better team today than in October,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said when asked what has changed with the Giants over these past three months.
From Week 5, the Packers and Giants split into opposite paths.
Under first-year coach Ben McAdoo, McCarthy’s longtime offensive assistant, the Giants picked up the pieces with six straight wins after leaving Lambeau Field. Few NFC teams are hotter. The Giants closed their season winning nine of their final 11 games, including their finale in Washington that clinched a Packers' playoff berth.
“We were going through some tough times early in the season,” McAdoo said, “playing some good opponents. We figured out how to win going through some tough times, and hung together and set our jaw and got to work, and we’re playing some sound football now.”
These Packers know plenty about tough times.
Nobody would confuse the run-the-table Packers with the team that beat the Giants, but their win pushed them to 3-1. Then things fell apart. The Packers lost five of their next six games, hitting rock bottom with a 4-6 record.
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Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, more reflective this week, said the Packers' locker room adapted during that difficult time. Rodgers credited McCarthy for his approach.
“He was really positive,” Rodgers said. “I think if anything, after the Washington game, he became even more of a players’ coach. He was even more positive and listened even more, and just kept encouraging us that we were close to kind of getting over the hump and starting to win games.
“So he took some crap from everybody, but he stayed the course for us in the meeting room and the locker room.”
It’s more than intangibles that are different from when the Packers hosted in the Giants in Week 5.
Both teams are on an even playing field now. In October, the Giants were coming off a short week after a Monday night game at Minnesota. The Packers were coming off their bye, given two weeks to rest and prepare.
Maybe the biggest difference is Rodgers’ play. Against the Giants, he completed 23 of 45 passes (51 percent) for 259 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions and a passer rating of 65. Through four games, Rodgers’ rating was an unsightly 87.6. He was completing 56.1 percent of his passes, averaging 6.3 yards per pass, and throwing a touchdown on 6.4 percent of his attempts.
In the past four games, Rodgers’ rating is a soaring 125. He has completed 70.2 percent of his passes, averaging 8.74 yards per pass, with an 8.39 touchdown percentage. The Packers have scored 30 points in each of the four games, including against the Seattle Seahawks (third in scoring defense) and Minnesota Vikings (sixth).
“I think we’re definitely more explosive than midseason,” Rodgers said.
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Nothing has helped Rodgers’ midseason turnaround more than Jordy Nelson’s reemergence into a legitimate No. 1 receiver.
Nelson caught touchdowns in each of his first four games, including a 2-yard pass from Rodgers that opened the scoring against the Giants. But his scoring ability was about the only thing reminiscent of Nelson’s skillset before a torn ACL cost him all of 2015.
Nelson had 21 catches for 244 yards in his first four games, catching 52.5 percent of the passes Rodgers threw him for a 100.4 rating. In his last four games, Nelson has 21 catches for 385 yards, catching 61.7 percent of his targets for a 139.9 passer rating from Rodgers.
McAdoo, who knows Nelson well, said the Packers receiver has looked like himself lately.
“Jordy looks like he’s in the second year coming off of it,” McAdoo said. “He looks like he’s really made some progress on it. He looks stronger, he looks faster. We know what kind of ball skills he has. He’s playing at a high level.”
If the Packers' offense is more explosive, the Giants are more balanced. They have Odell Beckham Jr., a receiver who defensive back Micah Hyde said can turn a 3-yard hitch into a 70-yard touchdown at any time.
Their running game was among the league’s worst. In October, the Packers simply sat back in a two-shell look, keeping both safeties deep to prevent Beckham from big plays. Beckham finished with five catches for 56 yards and a touchdown, one week from posting 222 yards at Baltimore.
Perkins has emerged as a legitimate threat. He had his first 100-yard game Sunday at Washington, finishing with 102 on 21 carries (4.9 per carry). Giants quarterback Eli Manning said he’ll watch film of the October game, studying how the Packers defended him.
Perkins’ emergence could force the Packers to change.
“I think you definitely look at the first game,” Manning said, “and you see what their thoughts were on how to play us, and see what went well for (them), what we think they’ll do again, what we think they won’t do, or what can be something new for them. And how things have changed in the last week under different personnel and scheme. I think you use all the information you possibly can over the whole season to get a good game plan.”
Even now, the Giants rank 29th in the NFL averaging 88.3 rushing yards per game.
They’ve shown more commitment to the run, with 130 carries in their final four games dwarfing their 95 carries in their first four. The Giants have averaged 120.25 rushing yards per game in their last four games, compared to 93.75 in their first four.
“If you’re going to change,” McAdoo said, “it takes time. You can’t snap your fingers. You have to throw effort at it, you have to work at it, and it took some time to get it going. But we were committed to it, the players were committed to it, they worked hard at it, and we’re making some progress.”
There’s been plenty of time since the Packers and Giants last saw each other. Enough that they’ll be hardly recognizable when they meet again.
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