Giants' Run Ends Sunday; Pack Will Roll to Title Game
Tuesday 01-17-2012 8:20am CT
Originally posted 1/14/12
The national subplot leading into the divisional round matchup between the Giants and Packers is how history may be repeating itself. Remember, the '07 Giants almost handed the unbeaten Patriots a loss late in the season and then took them down in the Super Bowl. Now, four years later, they can do it again to the Pack. Plus, they won here the last time Green Bay hosted a playoff game on the frozen, sub-zero tundra in the NFC title game in Favre's last game as a Packer.
There's been a lot of steam on the Giants all week. They're healthy, confident and can do the two things necessary to knock off the champs: run the ball and rush the passer. But the closer we get to kickoff, I get the sense that most rational minds are starting to come back around to the side of the green and gold--and there are many reasons why.
It starts with the location of the game. The Packers are 22-3 at home since that playoff loss and are riding a 13-game home winning streak. This year at Lambeau, with Rodgers under center, the average score has been 39-19. They've trailed at home once all season, 3-0 against Denver.
But #1 seeds in the NFC have lost three of the last four in this round--the Pack did it to the Falcons just last season. I find it so interesting that from 1990-2007 the #1 seed was unbeaten in this round and now it's become a very dangerous spot.
I've said it all week: I believe we will see a different Packers defense in this game. No, they're not going to suddenly channel last year's squad, but they've had a lot of time to listen to the naysayers since Christmas night. They can't stop the run. They can't rush the passer. Look what the Giants did to them, etc. etc.
This is a proud, rested, healthy unit. The Pack gets linebackers Desmond Bishop and AJ Hawk back for this matchup and they welcome the return of Ryan Pickett, whose loss was felt clearly in the Chiefs and Bears games, especially against the run. The Giants ran very well against the Pack and last week against the Falcons. This from a team that ranked dead last in the NFL this season. No one is calling Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs "Thunder and Lightning" anymore. Jacobs played well last week, but tends to disappear in big spots. Bradshaw is still not 100% with a foot injury, practicing only on Fridays and not playing as many snaps as he would if healthy.
I think the Packers step up with their run defense and put the game in Ei Manning's hands. Putting him in second and third and long situations makes him an entirely different QB--as it does most signal callers. Don't get me wrong, the Giants will score some points--but not as many as they did in the first meeting. Brad Jones may get the start at outside linebacker and will likely be much more disciplined than Walden. Clay Matthews' matchup with Kareem McKenzie is a mismatch and the Giants will have to give him some help.
The Pack's biggest advantage in this matchup is when they have the ball. They hung 77 points on the G-men in their last two meetings (taking away Matthews' pick six) and Rodgers' passer rating has been sky high in both games. The Giants have a terrific defensive line. Jason Pierre-Paul has become one of the league's top pass rushers and he had his way with Marshall Newhouse in the first meeting. But Chad Clifton is back. In fact, the Pack's offensive line is intact for the first time since Week 3. Clifton and Sitton missed the first matchup--they'll hold up against the pass rush.
The Packers have all kinds of advantages in the passing game. With Jennings back, he'll draw much of Corey Webster's attention. That leaves Aaron Ross (recovering from a concussion) and rookie Prince Amukamara (and maybe even former Packer Will Blackmon) to cover Nelso, Jones, Driver and Cobb. Though Cobb's been slowed by a groin injury, I get the feeling he will make two or three big plays in this game, in both the passing and the return game. The Giants will have a completely healthy Michael Boley back at linebacker--he's very good and will be charged with keeping an eye on Jermichael Finley, who was left open often in the previous game. The Giants may try the same game plan, hoping he'll continue to drop some easy catches, particularly when a linebacker or safety is nearby.
And then there's Rodgers. He hasn't had a chance to show his stuff since Drew Brees broke Dan Marino's passing record. Since then, Rodgers' MVP award-in-waiting has been handed by many to Brees. Some actually point to Matt Flynn's video game numbers in Week 17 as a reason to give the award to Brees--and to question whether Rodgers benefits from McCarthy's system. Rodgers no doubt is feeling a little disrespected right now. You won't hear him say it, but on Sunday he'll let his arm do the talking.
Want another reason to like the Pack this Sunday? Mike McCarthy is 7-1 in games following an open week. He knows how to use the extra time and he knows how to make sure there is no rust on his players when they run through the tunnel. Now, this has been no ordinary week. The tragic death of Michael Philbin has shaken this organization. Many players have never experienced a loss of someone close--Aaron Rodgers had never been to a funeral before. Joe Philbin is beloved and has the ultimate respect of his players. As difficult as this week has been emotionally, the players will keep him in their minds and close to their hearts when they take the field.
I've been accused at times, by some, of being a nervous Nellie. Not this week. The Giants are a quality team, playing better than their 10-7 record. But these Packers are healthy, playoff-tested and will be ready for this game. They will get off to a fast start (very important) and they will play the best 60 minutes of football we've seen all season.
Packers 35 Giants 20
A Special Season Ends Far Too Soon
Tuesday 01-17-2012 8:20am CT
We were treated to a magical 13-month run, with a march to a Super Bowl title backed up by a 15-1 season. But what we witnessed at Lambeau Field on Sunday night will leave a bad taste in all of our mouths for months.
Where do we start? Three fumbles. Zero pass rush. Lousy tackling. A rusty offense led by a rusty quarterback. An embarrassing two play stretch by the defense to end the first half that gave the G-men a ten point lead and a world of momentum heading into the locker room. I mean, seriously, they hand the ball to Ahmad Bradshaw to basically run out the clock and he gains a ton of yards and gets out of bounds--allowing Manning to try a Hail Mary, one that was answered by Nicks, giving the Giants a ten-point lead at the half.
If not for some very questionable calls against the Giants, this one would have been even more of a laugher. There is blame to go around, but first you have to credit the Giants for taking the Pack out of their game from the very start. Hakeem Nicks showed once again that he is an elite receiver and the Giants' secondary made life miserable for the Packers' offense all day.
But the goat horns are reserved for Dom Capers and his defense, which was utterly unable to get any kind of pressure on Eli Manning all day and could not get off the field on third down. The corners were brutal and Charlie Peprah may not be on this roster next season after this performance.
The offense was no better. Eight dropped balls, three fumbles. In Rodgers' seven starts at Lambeau this season, he and the offense averaged 39 points per game. On this day, they never found a rhythm. Manning and his receivers were much better on this day.
There will be plenty of time to reflect on this season and what Ted Thompson needs to do to make this team better. For now, we are left with might have been. The road to Indy was supposed to go through Lambeau. Instead, Eli and his merry band of receivers put a dagger in the Packers' season. And we're left to wonder what could have been, just like the 28 other teams that are looking ahead to 2012.
An Early Read on Packers vs. Giants
Monday 01-09-2012 2:37pm CT
I can hear it now. You'll be hearing it all week. The Giants are this year's "it" team. They're being looked at by many as the team that's heating up at just the right time; the team that has what it takes to make a deep run: a talented quarterback, a solid running game and a fearsome pass rush.
But how hot are they, really? Yes, their 24-2 win over the Falcons was impressive. After a slow start, they rolled over Atlanta, dominating the game on both sides of the ball. Leading up to this game, they finished the season 3-3, including a home loss to the Redskins in week 15. Their last three wins came over the Jets and Cowboys twice, not exactly fearsome opponents.
And now they get the Packers in a rematch of the week 13 classic--that loss to Green Bay was their fourth straight. They seem to have righted the ship since that game, despite the loss to the Redskins to weeks later. With a healthy Ahmad Bradshaw, they now have a two-headed running attack. With Mario Manningham back, they have three receivers who can stretch the field. And with Osi Umenyiora back on the field, their pass rush is at full strength. One injury of note was the concussion to cornerback Aaron Ross. If he can't go on Sunday it severely weakens their most suspect unit.
This just in: Aaron Rodgers is no Matt Ryan. Ryan is a pocket passer and a pocket passer only. He showed on Sunday he can't move out of the pocket and his accuracy and decision making is very suspect when he's on the move. Rodgers excels when on the run and let's be honest, he'll likely be forced from the pocket a bit next Sunday. With tackles Chad Clifton and Bryan Bulaga back in their customary positions and a healthy Josh Sitton at right guard (he missed the first meeting), the offensive line will have all opening day starters for the first time since week 3.
Rodgers will have a full complement of weapons at his disposal and the early forecast looks like a fairly mild day for mid-January, with temperatures in the mid-20s and no snow. That should make for a fast track. The only real question about the offense is this: how will the week off affect them? Will they pick up where they left off, or will it take them a little while to find a rhythm?
As for the defense, they will have an opportunity to show that they aren't as bad as the stats show. Yes they ranked 32nd in yards allowed, but they gave up 22 points per game (19th), less than the Giants, who surrendered 25 per game (25th). Their ability to create turnovers and lock down in the red zone makes them a better unit than advertised. They need to get off the field on third down on Sunday, something the Falcons defense was unable to do.
Much more to come on the big game as the week goes on. But just get ready to hear that the Giants have steam. You'll hear about the '08 NFC title game, when the Giants came in as big underdogs and upset the Pack in overtime when Brett threw a pick on the first possession. Are they talented? Yes. Do they have a QB who's proven to be a great clutch, fourth quarter performer? Yes.
But the Packers do too. And they'll be healthy and ready to defend Lambeau Field in Aaron Rodgers' first home playoff game.
Matt Flynn: To Tag Or Not To Tag
Wednesday 01-04-2012 10:44am CT
A fun talker has emerged during this week off: would Ted Thompson consider placing the franchise tag on Matt Flynn? It would be audacious. It would be daring. Have we ever used either of these adjectives to describe the Packers' general manager? I think not, which leads me to conclude that it won't happen--as intriguing as it may sound.
It goes something like this: the Pack places the tag on Flynn, guaranteeing him $14.5 million next season, no matter what uniform he's wearing. That's the average of the top five QBs in the league. Let's stop right here for a moment and consider this.
Obviously, Thompson would have to have a trade partner in place before he does this. The possibility that no one offers him what he wants and the team enters next season with both Rodgers and Flynn is absurd. #10 would make some six million more than #12. You'd have a whacked out salary cap situation, with $23 million going to QBs, meaning you can't sign the guys you might want to, like Wells and Finley, among others.
No, there would have to be a wink wink deal in place. Technically, NFL rules say you can't tag a guy and then trade him. But since Bill Belichick and the Patriots did it a few years ago with Matt Cassell, the precedent was set.
But what could the Pack expect to get for Flynn? A number one? Maybe. A one and a three, as some talking heads have predicted? Wow, that would be enticing to anyone. If Flynn does leave via free agency, Green Bay would probably be given the highest compensatory pick allowed, a third round pick at the bottom of that round.
Another thing to remember: if you tag Matt Flynn, you can't tag Jermichael Finley. As maddening as the guy can be on and off the field, slapping the tight end tag on him does not hurt you capwise, and ensures he will be playing for the monster contract next season (of course he wants to be tagged as a wide receiver, rather than a tight end, so this one could get a little ugly).
So you have two choices: let him walk for a compensatory pick or tag him and see if QB-needy teams like Seattle, Miami, Washington or Cleveland decide they'd rather overpay an unproven, yet polished and well-coached fourth-year guy, rather than start over with a rookie.
Ultimately, that's what this whole thing boils down to. If you're a team like the Seahawks or Redskins, are you willing to pay Matt Flynn $14 million to play quarterback next season, based on two career starts? If Flynn is a free agent, his asking price is way below that. I would think those teams would rather take a chance at wooing him on the open market, rather than overpay him and give up prized draft picks to the Packers. Plus, teams have to look at Flynn and what he did and ask whether they can expect anything close to that level of play from him with their own offenses.
My hunch is that Flynn leaves as an unrestricted free agent--I just can't see a team forking over that kind of dough for a guy with two career starts. You're putting your career on the line with a call like that. He is in the business of drafting players and letting his coaches develop them.
After four years in the Packer system, Matt Flynn has earned the opportunity to start somewhere else. Thompson will let him go, and then he'll do what he does every offseason: find a new crop of young players to replace the ones who move on.
Not very audacious, but it seems to work rather well.
Examining Ted's Biggest Mistake in 2011
Wednesday 12-28-2011 10:09am CT
Let's start with the obvious. The reason the Packers sit atop the power rankings and are favored to return to a second straight Super Bowl is the unparalleled performance of Aar...I mean, Ted Thompson. He took an aging, Sherman-depleted roster and built a team that is set to contend for years.
But he made one big mistake in 2011 and it may cost the team a shot at a second straight Lombardi trophy. Let's start with all the cliches: "Hindsight is 20-20." "We don't know what was going on behind closed doors," etc, etc.
But Thompson's decision to cut loose free agent defensive end Cullen Jenkins, rather than pay him, has cost this defense dearly. The Eagles paid him $25 million over five years; I wonder if Thompson would like a do-over on this one. Jenkins could be maddening at times because it seemed like he could never stay on the field. He was often injured--not major injuries, but enough to cost him a game or two here and there. Thompson looked at a 30-year-old defensive end with a history of bumps and bruises and decided his defense could survive without him.
He was wrong. Jenkins has had a strong, healthy season for the Eagles, who obviously failed to live up to the "Dream Team" hype. Meanwhile, Thompson put a little too much faith in his guys, namely Mike Neal, who was drafted in the second round in '10 as Jenkins' heir apparent. Neal has yet to be healthy enough to even play and is inviting Justin Harrell comparisons. The other guys, Jarius Wynn and CJ Wilson have had their moments but are not long-term answers. A strong, punishing 3-4 defense begins with a bruising line (think of the Steelers and Ravens guys).
Jenkins provided stellar pass rush ability from the right DE spot, forcing opposing offenses to account for him. That opened the door for Clay Matthews on the other side to make plays. Part of Matthews' junior slump can be attributed to his achy hamstrings, but the absence of Jenkins is the bigger reason.
We all know that injuries happen. The loss of Nick Collins early in the season was a punishing blow. And the injuries to guys like Matthews, Pickett, Williams, Bishop and Hawk during the season weakened the unit.
But if you want to know why the top seeded Pack should fear potent offenses like the Saints, Giants or Patriots, it's because the D-line is a weaker unit without Cullen Jenkins lined up next to BJ Raji.
What If Vince Gave the Pre-Game Pep Talk This Sunday Night...
Wednesday 12-21-2011 10:54am CT
I had dinner on Tuesday night at Lombardi's Steakhouse in Appleton, a guest of Josh and Amy Keeney. If you've been there you know you are immersed in Packers history, with photos, artifacts, books and other pieces of Lombardi's life all around you. It got me thinking, what would Vince say to these Packers, if Mike McCarthy gave him the floor in the center of the locker room, moments before kickoff this Christmas night?
Men, it's been a difficult week. That game last week didn't make any sense. I mean, what the hell was goin' on out there? You had linemen dropping like flies. Rodgers was getting drilled like there was a team of Nitschkes on the other side of the ball. Finley, didn't you used to have hands? Nelson, were you even out there? Oh yeah, they threw the flag on you a couple of times.
And the defense? Tell you what, I didn't see no Jim Browns or Gale Sayers on that team. They were playing with a bunch of backups. Orton? Battle? And they got 400 yards off of you? You gotta be kidding me.
I'm gonna give you guys a pass on that game. The film? It's in the garbage. That was not the Green Bay Packers that boarded a plane for Kansas City. I don't know who was wearing those uniforms. You guys are champions. You guys have turned back every opponent for 12 straight months. Let this game serve as a reminder that as champions every team has you in their crosshairs. If you are not 100% committed, 100% prepared for battle, the battle will be lost.
Men, on this night the three most important things in life come together: God, family and the Green Bay Packers. You've had a chance to celebrate Christmas with your loved ones today. And now you have a chance to give yourselves the best Christmas present you've ever got. You can achieve a goal you set back in August. You can earn the top seed in the NFC playoffs. NFC, AFC I don't know what that all means.
All I know is when you win this football game you will make sure the path to the Super Bowl runs through Lambeau Field. That's how it should be. And in the process, you will knock off our most hated rival, the Chicago Bears. Oh, I'll be able to get the last word with Halas for another year after this game.
Aaron, Clay and Charles, you're the modern day Bart, Ray and Herb. You are leaders of this talented team. You have been 100% committed from the moment you put on that uniform. It is time to put the team on your backs and crush the flickering playoff hopes of those smelly Bears.
Over the years I led hundreds of great players through that tunnel. I was proud of every one of them. They weren't just great players, they were great men and they were a great team. Just like you 53 men.
Now, all of you, get out there and play like the champions you are!
Appreciating the Greatest 12 Months in Packers History
Thursday 12-15-2011 2:39pm CT
With apologies to the Lambeau and Lombardi eras, we are living through the greatest stretch in Packer history. Since the team is unlikely to play an important, meaningful game until mid-January, it feels right to step back for a moment to appreciate and soak in what we have witnessed since the Packers hosted the Giants last December 26th.
Things were oh so different a year ago at this time, when the team was in playoff mode with two games to go in the regular season. After dismantling the Giants and knocking off the Bears, they entered the postseason as the #6 seed and became road warriors. We all know what happened next.
The Packers became the first NFC sixth seed to win the Lombardi trophy and in the process, Aaron Rodgers became a superstar. His playoff performance in Atlanta was one of the greatest by a quarterback in NFL history. That night in the Georgia Dome, against the NFC's top seed elevated him to within arm's reach of the Mannings, Bradys and Brees's of the world. Of course, after playing at a similar level against the Bears and Steelers, and becoming the Super Bowl MVP, he was suddenly mentioned in the same breath with those three.
And after a historic parade through Titletown, the Packers had to soak up the adulation quickly, because soon after the league went dark and the lockout shut everything down for the next six months or so. But not even that could slow the Pack's momentum.
That brings us to the 2011 season, where the Packers have been unbeatable and are now seen as the model organization in the NFL. Without being dragged down by a number of crippling injuries, the team has plowed through the schedule, never trailing in the fourth quarter and only being tested for 60 minutes one time: at the Giants a couple weeks back.
19-0 is being talked about because of one player: Aaron Rodgers. He is in the midst of the greatest season a quarterback has ever had, displaying remarkable decision making, accuracy and leadership week in and week out. His receiving corps is called the best and deepest in the league, though none of them were drafted in the first round.
We got to watch Brett Favre for 16 years as he quickly developed into the league's best and toughest player and was the poster child for the NFL for years. Now Rodgers is prepared to take that title and has elevated the play at that position in his first four years as a starter. Still in his 20s, Rodgers could own most Packer passing records before he's through, except for two: the starting streak and the interception record.
The Packers are six wins away from perfection. Six wins away from becoming the greatest team in NFL history. We're so close we can taste it. But much can happen between now and then. For now, let's just drink in these last 12 months: the greatest and most exciting we've ever witnessed.
Should Pack Pursue Perfection?
Wednesday 12-07-2011 3:10pm CT
One of the things you'll hear more often in the next few weeks than Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas" is the endless speculation about whether Mike McCarthy will take his foot off the pedal in the final week or two, should the Packers remain undefeated and have the number one seed wrapped up.
Everyone will weigh in. Former coaches, players, TV talking heads, radio guys like yours truly. The truth is, no one outside the halls of 1265 Lombardi Avenue has any idea what the Pack would do. Naturally, all kinds of factors could shape the decision. What if Aaron Rodgers tweaks an ankle in Week 16 and is OK, but could use two weeks to make sure it's right. What if it's five below zero with winds howling on January 1st? Do you give some of your important veterans the day off and say, 'let's rest up for the divisional weekend?'
Here's what we know: since 1998, five teams have started the season 12-0. Two went on to win the Super Bowl, two lost it and one lost in their first playoff game. We've seen teams embrace their shot at history (Patriots) only to fall agonizingly short in the big game. We've seen teams rest their guys (Colts) and also fall short in the big game.
Everybody understands that the first and top priority for every football team is to win the Super Bowl. The Packers have a shot to go back to back and that is their ultimate goal. But once you reach 12-0, you start to think in historical terms. You have a chance to be considered the greatest football team of all time, or at least of the Super Bowl era. So many things have to go right to get to 12-0. Once you're there, and your team is relatively healthy, and the schedule seems to favor you, how do you tell the 53 guys in the locker room that they're going to stay on the bench for the last game or two of the regular season? That their chance at history is being taken out of their hands.
I fully believe that the Packers are going to go for it. Mike McCarthy is aggressive by nature. You see it in his play calling. You see it when he wins the coin toss and defers to allow his defense to take the field first. A chance to separate this team from all the others that came before it in Titletown? You can bet Paul Hornung's casino chips that they're going to give it a shot.
Worst case scenario, in a meaningless game on Week 17 the Packers suffer a significant injury that staggers their hopes for a Super Bowl repeat. I won't be criticizing McCarthy and the front office for allowing it to happen. I want history. I want 19-0. I want to stop hearing from Mercury Morris, Larry Czonka and the rest of the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who keep champagne on ice every year until the last of the unbeatens fall.
For now, the team will continue to say all the right things: We have other goals in front of us. We have accomplished our first goal, winning the North, next up is home field advantage. Right now, we're thinking about getting to 13-0 and on and on. It's in the back of everyone's minds, though. A shot at perfection--to be considered the best team ever.
You can take it to the bank: the Pack will take their best shot at it.
Giants Have Backs Against the Wall: Pack Will Keep Them There
Friday 12-02-2011 3:41pm CT
It's become very fashionable to predict that the Giants will end the Packers' streak on Sunday.
On paper, it looks like the toughest test yet in the regular season. Three weeks ago the New York Giants looked like the team to beat in the NFC East, after knocking off the Patriots in Foxborough. But now they've lost three straight and they've adopted the "backs against the wall," "us against the world" mentality.
Their defense gave up the second most yards they've ever surrendered in a game as Drew Brees and company hung 577 yards on them. That got defensive coordinator Perry Fewell to call them an embarrassment, quitters, etc. so many believe we will see a much more intense effort from that unit in their big game against the Packers.
And as of this writing, it sounds like running back Ahmad Bradshaw expects to play on an injured foot that has caused him to miss the last four games--he will not practice this week. A healthy Bradshaw changes everything about the Giants' offense. Right now, it's all on Eli Manning and the passing game, because Brandon Jacobs is a shell of his former self. If Bradshaw looks like Bradshaw, he will give the Packers a legit running game to defend, as well as a very good receiver in the screen game.
Many will also point to the symmetry of the Packers facing the Giants, against whom they began this magical streak last December 26th, a 45-17 pasting at Lambeau. Could the streak begin and end against New York, a team that might consider themselves a lot like the '10 Packers--devastated by injuries and playing playoff games in December?
In the NFL it matters much less who you play, but rather when you play them. The Packers are facing a desperate Giants team that was embarrassed on Monday Night Football and sees its season slipping away. But with two games left against the Cowboys, their season will not end with a loss on Sunday.
The reality is, the Giants' season began slipping away when three cornerbacks were lost for the season in training camp. That put a bit more pressure on their defensive line--one of the best in the league entering 2011. Opposing offenses knew that NY rarely had to blitz because their front four was outstanding at getting to the quarterback. Well that's no longer the case. They didn't get close to Brees on Monday night and haven't the past three weeks. Osi Umenyiora is out with a sprained ankle and Justin Tuck will play on a bad ankle (among a number of injuries)--he has not played anything like the Tuck of the past all season. They have one stud pass rusher: Jason Pierre-Paul, who ranks among the league leaders in sacks. Bryan Bulaga will have his hands full with him, but with Osi and Tuck not factors, the Pack and gameplan against Pierre-Paul.
The problem the Giants face is stopping Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' high-flying offense. If they can't get to him, they will have to blitz and we all know that no QB in the league is better against the blitz than Rodgers. A key will be the health of linebacker Michael Boley. He missed the Saints game with a hamstring, but is expected back Sunday. He's the signal caller on the Giants D. Fellow linebacker, rookie Mark Herzlich, the best story in the NFL, has looked good at middle linebacker the past two weeks, but hasn't practiced this week with an ankle injury.
As for the secondary, the early injuries decimated the corner position. Rookie #1 pick Prince Amukamara finally hit the field a few weeks back and is playing the nickel, but he, Corey Webster and Aaron Ross are all beatable. At safety, Antrel Rolle continues to run his mouth, and can play against the run, but struggles in coverage.
The Pack will undoubtedly face a focused defense that will play a lot better at home than it did on Monday night--and they know the Giants will try to expose Evan Dietrich-Smith who will start at right guard in place of Josh Sitton. But it's hard to see a scenario where the Packers don't hang 30 points on this team.
Defensively, the Pack may be without both inside linebackers. Neither Desmond Bishop nor A.J. Hawk have practiced with their calf injuries, meaning rookie D.J. Smith (seven tackles last week) and Robert Francois (interception last week) need to step up in a big spot on the road. Last year, Manning threw four interceptions and his red zone pick last week showed that he can still be forced into mistakes. Eli, let me re-introduce you to your good friends Charles and Tramon.
Manning will not have a full complement of weapons to try to keep pace with Rodgers. Wide receiver Mario Manningham is out with a knee injury. Their best guy, Hakeem Nicks has not practiced all week with a rib injury and concussion (cleared by medical staff). Victor Cruz has emerged as a big playmaker with the injuries to the starters; he missed practice Wednesday with a hip injury, but practiced fully on Thursday. And Manning no longer has dependable tight end Kevin Boss. Jake Ballard has had his moments, but drops as many as he catches.
Look for the Giants to pay a lot of attention to Jennings and Nelson--it feels like Finley and Jones may be ready for big games. Brandon Saine could also see more snaps on third downs. The Pack's season-long recipe of big plays in the passing game and taking care of the football should continue.
With ten days to prepare versus six for the Giants, the Packers enter this game healthier, more confident and more talented. The Giants may stick around for a while, but Green Bay continues on its mission.
NFC Hierarchy Clears As Playoffs Nears
Tuesday 11-29-2011 4:31pm CT
As we get set to turn the calendar to December we enter crunch time in the NFL--where playoff positioning is solidified and teams try to catch a wave like the Packers did last season. But as of now, the NFC playoffs appear set. The six teams that would comprise the NFC field right now, appear to be the ones that will be left standing in January.
Yes, I know, a lot can happen between now and New Year's Day. A key QB could go down, someone could stomp their way to a suspension. But barring any major developments, here's how things appear to be shaking out in the NFC.
#1 Seed: The Pack, of course. They haven't lost in more than 340 days. They're chasing history right now and have a very good shot at an undefeated regular season. This Sunday's road test at the Giants appears to be their toughest game left, though home games against the Raiders and Bears won't be gimmes. Whether they're 16-0 or slip up somewhere along the way, there will be no road warrior script like 2010 for the Packers. The road to the Super Bowl runs through Lambeau.
#2 Seed: San Francisco appears to have the inside track, but don't sleep on the Saints. The Niners have a better conference record than New Orleans, 7-1 vs. 5-3, so they would likely win a tiebreaker if they finish with similar records. With road games in Seattle and St. Louis and home games against the Rams, Panthers and Steelers, I see the 49ers finishing 13-3 at worst and the second seed.
#3 Seed: The Saints remain the Packers' most dangerous threat in the NFC. As I predicted in August, the first game and last game may be Saints at Packers. They have the QB who can go toe to toe with Aaron Rodgers and he has a deeper arsenal of offensive weapons than the Pack has--thanks to a strong backfield. The Saints may win out. Their toughest test is a road game in Nashville. Otherwise they come to Minnesota and host the Lions, Falcons and Panthers. Say they stumble once. They finish 12-4 and the third seed.
#4 Seed: Though the Cowboys only have a one game lead over the Giants, it feels like a lot more. They've won four straight, though they haven't been overly impressive along the way. The schedule favors Dallas in December, with divisional home games against the Giants and Eagles and road games in Arizona, Tampa and New York. They're 7-4 right now; I've got them finishing 10-6 and winning the NFC Least.
Wildcard #1: Atlanta has righted the ship and will secure the top wildcard spot with 10 or 11 wins. They're at Houston this week--the Texans are down to their third string QB--a rookie--and they're on the road in Carolina and New Orleans. They have home games with Jacksonville and Tampa Bay. Feels like 10-6.
Wildcard #2: Despite the loss of Jay Cutler, the Bears will sneak into the playoffs by default. They'll win their two home games, against KC and Seattle and will likely win in Minnesota in the season finale. The road game in Denver is a question mark because it's hard to pick against Tim Tebow right now--feels like you're picking against God. They'll lose in Lambeau on Christmas night, so put them at 10 or 11 wins.
The Pretenders: The only two teams with winning records right now are the Lions and the Giants. With news that Ndamukong Suh has been suspended two games for stomping on Evan Dietrich-Smith, the Lions have no shot in New Orleans on Sunday night. They'll win home games with the Vikings and Chargers, but will lose at Oakland and Green Bay, to finish at 9-7. They may be ascending, but they need to learn how to act like winners. As for the Giants, if you've watched them this season, you know they are confounding. Lose at home to Seattle then beat the Patriots in Foxborough. Their last two efforts: losses at home to the Eagles and at New Orleans show that their offensive line is terrible and their secondary took too many injury hits early on to compete. 8-8 appears to be their fate.
Wildcard weekend could bring us Chicago at Dallas and a divisional matchup between the Falcons and the Saints. If the home teams survive, we'd be looking at Dallas at Lambeau and the Saints at San Francisco in the divisional round. Wait, am I getting ahead of myself? OK, one game at a time...bring on the Giants.