McGinn: Rodgers and the Packers slay the Giants
GREEN BAY - They stymied Odell Beckham Jr. by throttling the run game with a light box. They also dominated the punting and return games.
That’s what enabled the Green Bay Packers to survive the worst start by their franchise quarterback in almost two months.
Then, when Aaron Rodgers started doing what Aaron Rodgers does, the fourth-seeded Packers rolled over the fifth-seeded New York Giants, 38-13, in an NFC wild-card playoff game Sunday at frosty Lambeau Field.
“Great team victory,” said coach Mike McCarthy, and it most certainly was.
Now the Packers (11-6) will play the top-seeded Dallas Cowboys (13-3) at 3:40 p.m. Sunday at AT&T Stadium in a divisional game. It’ll be a rematch of the 2014 divisional contest won by the Packers, 26-21, in Green Bay.
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The visiting Cowboys whipped the Packers, 30-16, on Oct. 16. Dallas piled up 424 yards, including the most on the ground (191) against Green Bay all season.
The Packers turned the ball over four times to lose the turnover differential by two. After posting a turnover edge of plus-2 Sunday, Green Bay is a shocking plus-16 during its seven-game winning streak.
“We’re a much better team now,” linebacker Datone Jones said. “Just our chemistry. Guys are willing to die for each other in this locker room. That’s shown on film.”
The Giants (11-6) know more about beating the Cowboys than anyone else, sweeping them by scores of 20-19 and 10-7.
Two of their defensive starters, linebacker Jonathan Casillas and defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, said the Packers were a major threat to beat the No. 1 seed.
“Yes, because of Aaron Rodgers,” Casillas said. “They can beat anybody with him.
“The Cowboys have a good team. When they can run the ball, there’s really no one who can beat them. They have the No. 1 running back (Ezekiel Elliott) and probably the No. 1 play-action quarterback (Dak Prescott). But when you take the running game away they’re average. Maybe.”
Added Hankins: “Man, when Aaron Rodgers is at quarterback, I think so. But Dallas has a great offensive line, great quarterback, great weapons. They’ve got three Pro Bowlers on that line. It’ll be an exciting game to watch.”
A five-point favorite Sunday, the Packers atoned for home playoff losses to the Giants in 2007 (23-20, overtime) and 2011 (37-20). The Packers were favored by eight and 8 ½ points in those games.
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This game swung irrevocably toward the Packers on a Hail Mary touchdown pass of 42 yards to Randall Cobb in the north end zone as the first half expired just as the 2011 game swung toward the Giants on a Hail Mary TD pass of 37 yards to Hakeem Nicks in the same end zone as the first half expired.
“The Hail Mary kind of brought me back because they did that to us in ’11 and it kind of spurred them on,” said kicker Mason Crosby, who along with Rodgers were the only current Packers to experience both crushing defeats. “It feels good to get that win against them at home.”
Rodgers, who had a season-low passer rating of 65 against the Giants’ 10th-ranked defense in October, was totally off his game early. Through five series, all ended by punts, he had completed six of 14 passes for 56 yards.
Even worse, Rodgers was holding the ball an interminable length of time. His first sack came after 5.7 seconds. Without being pressured, he ran into defensive end Kerry Wynn for the second. On the third, he held the ball 6.1 seconds.
“’Spags’ (defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo) tried to show something and run something else,” said Casillas. “Maybe that flustered him a little bit. Maybe we just did a really good job playing defense.”
Strong safety Landon Collins had been Spagnuolo’s primary pressure player all season. In this game, he sent more cornerbacks, both from the slot and out wide.
“They had some guys that dropped out (into coverage),” guard Lane Taylor said. “They brought corners and one pipe blitz where a safety and a cornerback came from depth.”
At the same time, Rodgers was atypically off the mark. Of his 11 first-half incompletions, two were overthrown and three were underthrown.
“We knew we had to play better,” Taylor said of a halftime in which few adjustments were made. “We were playing like crap.”
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One reason why there were no adjustments was the Packers found themselves actually ahead at halftime, 14-6, even though they had been outplayed.
Eli Manning, the old Packer killer, came out gunning shots all over the field almost as if it was 7-on-7. He drove the Giants 37 yards on their first possession only to be turned away when Beckham dropped a third-and-5 pass at the Green Bay 26.
A series later, Manning hit Sterling Shepard twice for 39 and a first down at the Packers 15. On a previous play, Beckham dropped a 28-yard TD pass behind LaDarius Gunter. Then Shepard couldn’t make a tough catch in the end-zone corner.
Rather than being up, 14-0, the Giants led only 3-0.
“Maybe the stage is too big for him,” Jones said, referring to Beckham. “You can’t drop passes in the end zone. You get no re-do’s in this league. You work all year for this stage and you kind of have to be perfect. Odell Beckham dropped a few big passes for his team.”
Dom Capers adopted the same conservative defensive plan that kept Beckham under wraps in October. Generally, safeties Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix played back, and one of them almost always rotated behind the cornerback who was pressing Beckham at the line.
After catching just four of 11 targeted passes for 28 yards, Beckham made a hole in the wall outside the visiting locker room by smashing it out of anger.
At the same time, Capers was gambling that rookie running back Paul Perkins could be neutralized with four defensive linemen and two inside linebackers. Perkins pounded 21 times for a season-high 102 yards a week ago in an impressive victory at Washington.
“Stopping the run game was big from a two-high look,” linebacker Joe Thomas said. “We had to play two-high because they have a great receiving corps. Our D-line clogged some lanes up and our linebackers were able to flow and dominate the run game.”
Perkins carried 10 times for 30 yards. Coach Ben McAdoo tried nine runs on first down but the gain was merely 27.
The Packers also kept the score down because Jacob Schum out-punted Brad Wing by a vast margin in the 14-degree weather.
At the same time, solid kickoff returns of 33 yards by Jeff Janis and 31 by Christine Michael, a 23-yard punt return by Micah Hyde and excellent coverage by Janis against dangerous Dwayne Harris gave the Packers an 11-yard advantage in average starting point.
“Our kickoff guys were just hitting through the hole,” Crosby said. “Not slowing down. Just going. It’s a tough thing to do. You’ve got to have guys that are a little bit fearless.”
Finally, Rodgers awakened. Blessed with a drive start at the Giant 38, he drilled a 31-yard shot Davante Adams. One play later, when his line afforded him 8.1 seconds, he found Adams for a 5-yard TD.
When Letroy Guion and Burnett stopped scatback Bobby Rainey for no gain on third and 1, the Packers pulled off the Hail Mary.
“The Hail Mary killed our momentum and it gave them all the momentum,” Casillas said. “One big play can change a whole game, and I feel that’s exactly what happened.”
McCarthy took a big gamble early in the third quarter on fourth and 1. Collins blitzed the hole perfectly and Ty Montgomery lost a yard.
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Two plays later it was a 14-13 ball game when Tavarres King ran by Damarious Randall for a 41-yard TD.
At that point, the Packers went ballistic. Three touchdown passes and a field goal capped drives of 63, 23, 80 and 55 yards.
“It’s the ebb and flow of every game,” said Casillas. “He exploited us the second half.”
Adams and Cobb surpassed 100 yards in the absence of Jordy Nelson, who left with a rib injury at the 11-minute mark of the second quarter.
Did the Giants think Nelson’s departure would affect the Packers’ passing game?
“I didn’t think it would at all,” said Casillas. “Taking nothing away from Jordy Nelson. Really good receiver. But 12 is their guy. He’s the guy that makes everything work.
“If it wasn’t for him Jordy wouldn’t have those numbers and Cobb wouldn’t be that good. They’ll tell you the same thing.
“He (Rodgers) is that good of a player, and they still had him.”
Whereas the Packers made up for Nelson’s loss, the Giants couldn’t compensate for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. He left with a bruised thigh in the first three plays, and the dropoff to Trevin Wade and Coty Sensabaugh was enormous and would be exploited by Rodgers.
“That was huge,” Casillas said. “He was our biggest playmaker. One of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. When you’re going against this guy (Rodgers) and his receivers, you need everybody you can get.”
So the Packers, at last, had their day of revenge against the men in the white uniforms with the blood-red trim. Now it’s on to Dallas and a date with Jerry Jones’ well-rested Cowboys.