The New York Giants pulled off a rare one last offseason.
They bought a defense.
Going wild in free agency usually bombs in the NFL. Just ask Dan Snyder, who wasted tens of millions of dollars in the first decade of the 2000s trying to buy a Super Bowl for Washington. He never came close.
But Giants general manager Jerry Reese was desperate to save his job last March after coach Tom Coughlin was fired for missing the playoffs four straight years. So Reese tried to defy history.
He paid out $88 million in full guarantees to defensive end Oliver Vernon ($40 million guaranteed, $17 million average per year), cornerback Janoris Jenkins ($28 million guaranteed, $12.5 million average) and defensive tackle Damon Harrison ($20 million guaranteed, $9.3 million average).
They’re the team’s three highest-paid players after quarterback Eli Manning, and they’ve delivered. The Giants rank No. 2 in points allowed after finishing No. 30 in that category a year ago.
Now they return to Lambeau Field for a wild-card playoff game – the teams played there in October – with a defense that matches up better than anyone the Packers' peaking offense has faced during its six-game winning streak to close the regular season.
“Where (the Giants) kill you is they can stop the run, and they can cover,” said a scout from a Giants rival in the NFC East. “They have a safety (i.e., Landon Collilns) that can legitimately play. Collins is a really good safety, really good. That’s where they get you.
“But you can count on that guy making mistakes, that quarterback (i.e., Manning). I don’t think he can get in a shootout with (Aaron) Rodgers and expect to win. But then again, will their defense allow you to get in a shootout?”
A look back to that meeting in October is instructive for what it does and doesn’t suggest about this second meeting. That Packers never trailed in that 23-16 win. This game figures to be tougher.
Late this week I re-watched that game, and a few points jumped out. Some favor the Packers, some the Giants. Taken in total, I’m thinking the Packers’ five-point spread is high. The Giants figure to be a very tough out.
» Many teams are much different in January than they were in October, if for no other reason than injury. That’s very much the case here.
In that first meeting the Packers had halfback Eddie Lacy. But let’s face it, they’re much tougher to defend now than they were then.
And the Giants were shorthanded in the secondary, their strongest position and where they now match up best with the Packers. Their No. 2 cornerback, Dominque-Rodgers Cromartie, was limited in performance and snaps because of a groin injury; No. 3 cornerback Eli Apple left after only seven snaps when he aggravated a hamstring injury.
That might have been the difference in that game. On back-to-back plays in the second quarter, Davante Adams beat undrafted rookie Michael Hunter for 38 yards and a touchdown that put the Packers ahead 14-3, which is a big lead against an offensively challenged team. Rodgers-Cromartie and Apple are healthy now, so there’s no Hunter to pick on. Just last week, the Giants held Washington’s explosive, third-ranked offense to only 246 yards passing and 10 points.
» The Packers obviously are different with Ty Montgomery as their primary back, rather than the 250-plus pound Lacy. But their passing game has evolved too, especially concerning Jordy Nelson.
At that point in the season, Nelson was mainly an outside receiver (82 percent of his snaps in that game, by my count). Now he’s lining him up all over the field, often in the slot or as a quasi-tight end (54 percent against Minnesota two weeks ago, by my count), and he has taken off. During the Packers’ six-game winning streak, he’s tied for the league lead in receptions (44).
So Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo has a tough call. He might want to match his best cover man (Jenkins) against Nelson to take the Packers’ best receiver out of the game. But that would come at a cost, because with Montgomery at halfback and Jared Cook at tight end, the Packers in essence can field five receivers. Someone, most likely among Cook, Adams and Geronimo Allison, will have a good match-up, and they’ve shown recently they can exploit it.
» This is another good Giants’ defense, but much different than the 2007 and ’11 teams that upset the Packers at Lambeau in the playoffs. Those teams were deep and dominant on the line and OK in the secondary; this one is the opposite.
Re-watching that last meeting, it was amazing how much time Rodgers had to throw on down after down. Packers tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga shut down Vernon (8 ½ sacks this season) and Jason Pierre-Paul (seven). The Giants' two best rushers combined for no sacks and one QB hit.
And Pierre-Paul is out this week because of recent hernia surgery.
Early in the season, Rodgers still was in his prolonged blase stretch that dated to last year, and he had only a 65.0 rating despite stellar protection that day. He’s now playing like an MVP. If he has all that time again Sunday, the price will be higher unless the Giants at least find a way to pin him in the pocket.
» The last meeting turned on one play that easily could have – really should have – gone the Giants’ way.
Late in the second quarter, Giants tight end Will Tye ran five yards behind linebacker Jake Ryan down the seam for what should have been a 61-yard touchdown. But Manning’s slight overthrow and Tye’s poor tracking combined for an incompletion just off the tight end’s fingertips.
The touchdown would have cut the Packers’ lead to 14-13. Instead, Kyler Fackrell strip-sacked Manning on the next play, and Mason Crosby's field goal on the final play of the half gave the Packers a 17-6 lead. That drop/incompletion changed the game.
» The wild card Sunday, as always with the Giants, is Manning. He has an OK record (108-91, .543 winning percentage) and two impressive runs to Super Bowl titles. But this is only his second playoff appearance in the last seven years. He has a low career rating (83.7), and he’s interception prone (an average of 17.2 in 12 seasons as a starter).
He’ll also have ripe pickings with the Packers’ undermanned and underperforming secondary. Last week, defensive coordinator Dom Capers finished with safety Morgan Burnett as his No. 3 cornerback; Micah Hyde, a safety and slot corner, as the No. 2; and LaDarius Gunter, who opened the season as the No. 4, as the No. 1.
In the last meeting, Quinten Rollins often lined up against ultra-explosive Odell Beckham Jr., but Rollins (concussion) is out this week and had regressed anyway. Gunter covered Beckham some, too, but both almost always had help over the top.
The Giants’ best chance is to get a couple of big plays out of Beckham. The question is whether Manning can deliver while also avoiding catastrophe. He threw only one interception in four postseason games during each of his two Super Bowl runs; in his other three playoff games he threw six picks.
“The quarterback makes huge mistakes,” the scout said. “But in the playoffs you never know with him. They get in the playoffs and he seems to find his way.
“… He threw for 400 yards basically against (Philadelphia two weeks ago) and they lost that game. He throws for 200 yards against (Dallas two weeks before that) and wins the game. The recipe for him is not having him screw it up. But they don’t run the ball, and their offensive line is just not good, and he panics. And when he panics he makes mistakes.”