GREEN BAY - As the Green Bay Packers prepare to host the New York Giants in Lambeau Field for Sunday’s NFC wild-card playoff game, here are five things to know about each team.
1.This is a very different team than the one that beat the Giants in October.
Going back and watching the Packers' 23-16 win over the Giants at this point feels like an exercise in time travel. That team bears strikingly little resemblance to the team that finished the season on a six game winning streak.
Whether it was a healthy dose of running back Eddie Lacy or an uncharacteristically poor showing from Jordy Nelson, not much that transpired that evening has stuck with this Packers team down the stretch.
Obviously, the Giants are quite a different group as well. Big Blue’s defense has carried them into the playoffs while the Packers' offense has done the same for their team. The tape from that October matchup, while not completely useless, probably won’t be referenced very much as the teams prepare for each other.
2. Jared Cook could be a big difference in this matchup.
One of the biggest differences in this Packers offense has been the emergence of tight end Jared Cook as a third-down threat. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers looks for Cook on many big third-down plays and the two have been successful moving the chains.
While Cook missed the first meeting between these two teams, he has opened up the Packers' playbook since coming back from the ankle injury that kept him out for a good part of the year. He’s a big, athletic target that gives teams problems when trying to match up, especially when he’s split out wide.
It’s not just the production he gives the Packers, but his presence on the field alone presents problems for defensive coordinators trying to figure out what kind of personnel to deploy in response. If Cook gets going early, his presence will open up other things for the Packers.
3. The Packers are unbelievably banged up at cornerback.
It started back in Week One when starting quarterback Sam Shields went down with a concussion and it hasn’t stopped since. The Packers' cornerback position has been a MASH unit all season. This has thrust lots of young guys into much larger roles than they were ready for along the way, and the Packers have paid the price.
The last time the Giants and Packers played, second-year cornerback Quinten Rollins played a big role in helping contain Giants wide out Odell Beckham Jr. Rollins likely will not play this time around due to a concussion, and there’s a good chance the Packers will have safeties playing cornerback Sunday.
4. Rodgers is playing out of his mind.
Earlier this season, there seemed to be a cottage industry springing up around the question “What is wrong with Aaron Rodgers?” Fast forward a few months and Rodgers is playing at an MVP level and rendering that line of questioning completely moot.
Rodgers is playing in rhythm, thanks to great game plans from coach Mike McCarthy, and has found a level of trust with his wide receivers that perhaps was missing earlier in the season.
Whether it’s in the pocket going through his progressions or escaping outside the pocket and looking downfield for big plays, Rodgers has everything working for him and is one of the hottest quarterbacks in the league heading into the playoffs.
5. McCarthy has stayed the course and it’s paid off.
Back when the Packers were 4-6, and all during the four-game losing streak that brought them to that record, the heat on McCarthy was probably turned up higher than it ever has been during his decade-long tenure in Green Bay.
Rather than respond with public diatribes or by firing assistants, McCarthy trusted in his process and his program and has been rewarded with a six-game winning streak. Not many coaches in the NFL would have stayed the course the way McCarthy did, but his resolve and belief in his program has paid off big time.
1. The legend of "Postseason Eli"
Receiver Victor Cruz joked last week about the difference between the Eli Manning who plays in the regular season and “Postseason Eli.”
“It’s not like Eli all of a sudden puts on a cape or something,” Cruz said. “But absolutely, I was fortunate to be here the last time we went to the playoffs, and I was witness to how he raised his game when it mattered most. Now that we’re back in the playoffs, it’s about that time to go do it again.”
Manning is 2-0 at Lambeau Field in the playoffs, beating Brett Favre and the Packers in the 2007 NFC championship in overtime and then Rodgers in the 2011 NFC divisional round.
In the fourth quarter and overtime of four playoff games during the Giants’ 2011 run to their Super Bowl XLVI victory – their last time in the postseason – Manning completed 35 of 51 passes for 356 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
2. As Odell goes, Big Blue goes
Beckham finished the regular season as the second player in franchise history with more than 100 catches (101) for 1,367 yards and 10 touchdowns.
He is clearly the centerpiece of the Giants’ offense and has spoken eagerly about his excitement over the chance to take the stage in the playoffs.
With criticism coming after an off-day trip to Miami this week, Beckham’s performance will be judged with that as the backdrop. A reporter evoked memories of Hall of Famer Jerry Rice’s ability to raise his game in the postseason Wednesday, and Beckham’s eyes lit up at the chance to do the same.
3. Second(ary) to none
The Giants were banged up in the secondary when they faced Rodgers and the Packers on Oct. 9, which resulted in a 23-16 Green Bay victory.
Cornerbacks Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (six interceptions this year) and rookie Eli Apple were hobbled with groin and hamstring injuries at the time. Pro Bowl cornerback Janoris Jenkins should be back at 100 percent, and All-Pro safety candidate Landon Collins anchors the back of the unit that has adopted the nickname "NYPD" (New York Pass Defense).
4. Ground pickup
Rookie Paul Perkins rushed for 102 yards in his first career start in Week 17, marking the first time this season that a Giants runner reached the century mark.
The Giants will use Perkins as well as eighth-year veteran Rashad Jennings, who will be playing in his first playoff game. The success on the ground coincided with the return of left guard Justin Pugh, who was playing at a Pro Bowl level before a knee injury knocked him out of action for five weeks.
In the first eight games, the Giants averaged 68.3 rushing yards per game. They’ve averaged 108.3 over the last eight and are 7-0 when they rush more than 25 times in a game.
5. McAdoos' return
Giants coach Ben McAdoo spent eight seasons in Green Bay as an assistant, including two as Rodgers’ quarterbacks coach before joining Big Blue as offensive coordinator in 2014. McAdoo has downplayed his emotions in heading back to Lambeau, both in the regular season back in October and now as he takes the Giants into his first playoff game as a head coach.
The last time the Giants played the Packers, they were coming off a short week and Green Bay was coming off a bye. This could represent an opportunity for McAdoo and his coaching staff to show their ability to prepare and game plan for a better showing.