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By Paul Dottino
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Second chances. They are not guaranteed, so they need to be utilized whenever they arrive.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning were right in trying to turn the page the day after last Sunday’s devastating collapse against Philadelphia. Sure, the Eagles made like an iceberg and busted a hole in the bottom of the Giants’ ship, but this doesn’t mean it has to sink like the Titanic.
The Giants have a golden opportunity, thanks to their hard-earned 9-5 record – go on the road and beat the Green Bay Packers to make the playoffs. Anything less and Coughlin’s team is greasing the skids to the end of its season, giving the Packers a second chance to punch a fatal hole into the Giants’ underbelly the following weekend.
So how well will the Giants respond? The only evidence we have to go on with this group is that they’ve twice lost back-to-back games, putting their season on the verge of slipping away. And this is no exaggeration – the playoff picture indicates a 10-win team may be left out of the NFC playoffs – a three-game skid in either instance may already have taken the Giants’ postseason hopes out of their hands. But in both cases, the Giants stood tall and bailed out the water against quality opponents – with physical victories over Chicago, first, and then Jacksonville (with a dramatic second-half comeback).
The Giants are saying they can make this right, just as they did before. Here are three matchups that likely will determine if they are able to get it done:
1. Giants RBs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw vs. Packers OLBs Clay Matthews and Frank Zombo. This is no secret – the Giants must run the ball, if not to take command, then to put away the game (and this is one of the overlooked reasons they failed to finish off the Eagles). The Giants have rank 5th in the NFL in rushing (145 ypg) and it’s no coincidence that they failed to run for no more than 120 yards in each of their five losses.
The Packers are tied for 19th against the rush (117 ypg), primarily because they can be run at off the edges, where teams are averaging 5 yards per carry. Their outside linebackers often blitz and constantly try to get upfield in pass-rush mode out of their 3-4 scheme and the corners play a lot of man coverage, which reduces their ability in run support. Although Bradshaw has more “quicks” than Jacobs, don’t underestimate Jacobs’ ability to head to the races off tackle – they need to combine for at least 150 yards in this one for the Giants to win. Zombo has been limited by a sore knee, which would put Erik Walden in the lineup.
2. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers vs. Giants’ secondary. Rodgers has been cleared to play following his second concussion of the season, although backup Matt Flynn fired three TD passes in the loss to New England. Rodgers operates one of the NFL’s most diverse passing attacks – the Packers have four players with at least 40 receptions – so it forces opponents to do plenty of heavy film work to determine the keys of this West Coast-style approach. Rodgers does not make many mistakes. He completed at least 70 percent of his throws in each of his past four games. Over his last six appearances, he’s thrown 11 touchdown passes with only one interception.
The low turnover total contradicts Rodgers’ habit of locking onto his first target, perhaps because of his accuracy. Greg Jennings (who has three 100-yard games in the past month) has caught 11 of his Rodgers’ 23 scoring strikes and watch for the deep ball down the right sideline – the Packers rank fourth in the NFL with 44 such attempts. The Giants’ secondary needs to make Rodgers pay for any errant throws with an interception.
3. Giants P Matt Dodge vs. Packers’ punt-block unit. There is no way to know how the inconsistent rookie will react to the pressure of this game, especially since he said he’s never punted in the sub-20 degree weather that’s expected in Green Bay. PK Lawrence Tynes revealed he received a deep black bruise on his kicking foot from when he booted the Giants to an overtime victory at Lambeau in the 2007 NFC Championship game. The ball will be slick, hard and will react differently than what he’s accustomed to – and you have to think the Packers will be rushing hard to try to rattle him.
The only thing the Giants have come to expect from Dodge is the unexpected – he’s logged stats in the categories of fumbles, blocks and punts returned for touchdowns. Dodge needs to take these worries out of the game so that it may be decided from scrimmage rather than on a fluke play from the special teams.
PREDICTION: Giants 20, Packers 17
PREDICTION RECORD: 9-5 (7-7 vs. the spread)