The Green Bay Packers again have a defense that they believe can win games for them.
"You know, last year, there weren't many games where you'd say that," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "Of course, our offense was playing so well, it was such a different scenario."
This year, the Aaron Rodgers-led offense isn't as unstoppable, which is why the NFL MVP appreciates the defense's return to form.
"For our defense to play that way, it gives our offense a ton of confidence, knowing that we don't have to press thinking that we got to score just about every possession in order to win the game," Rodgers said earlier this week on his weekly radio show. "They keep playing like this, we're going to be tough to beat."
Last year's defense ranked dead last in the 32-team NFL in yards allowed, gave up more passing yards than any defense in NFL history and finished 19th in scoring defense.
In 2012, the defense entered this week's games 16th in yards allowed per game (343.9), 21st in yards passing allowed per game (244.4), 11th in yards rushing allowed per game (99.5), 10th in scoring defense (20.7 points per game) and second in sacks (33). Coach Mike McCarthy now acknowledges that last year's defense simply wasn't good enough, prompting him to focus on making his team more balanced.
"Our special teams has graded out consistently as the best unit. The defense graded out this week (against Detroit) as the best unit," McCarthy said. "Offensively, we have to pick it up. We didn't grade very well.
"But that's how you win the hard games. That's why you win the tough games. That's what good teams do."
And that's why the Packers may be in better position for a long playoff run this year.
"Last year, if the offense struggled, the team struggled," veteran defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. "Now this year, I think it's more of a team effort. I think we pick each other up."
Never were the Packers' issues last season more evident than in the two games they played against the Giants - their opponent again Sunday night.
In the Dec. 4 regular-season meeting at MetLife Stadium, the Packers won a 38-35 shootout on Mason Crosby's game-winning 31-yard field goal as time expired.
The Packers' offense racked up 449 yards, but the Giants had 447. The Packers' offense scored touchdowns on four of its five trips into the red zone; the Giants scored on three of their four. The Packers' 12 possessions ended in four touchdowns, five punts, one interception, one missed field goal and Crosby's game-winner. The Giants' 12 possessions ended in four touchdowns, four punts, two field goals, one interception and one fumble.
Then, in the Jan. 15 rematch in the NFC divisional playoffs at Lambeau Field, when the offense wasn't up to the task of going touchdown-for-touchdown with the Giants, the Packers were in trouble.
In a 37-20 loss that wasn't that close, they allowed Eli Manning to complete 21 of 33 passes for 330 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Rodgers was very un-Rodgers-like (26 of 46, 264 yards, two TDs, one INT, one lost fumble). The Giants racked up 420 total yards, and the Packers managed only one sack and one takeaway.
The Giants converted half of their third-down situations. With the Packers offense turning the ball over four times, the defense couldn't save the day with takeaways of its own.
This year's defense is different, and that's obvious to Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who had Capers as his defensive coordinator in Jacksonville for two seasons.
"The Packers' defensive team last year had a tremendous amount of takeaways," Coughlin said Wednesday. "This year's team has not as many takeaways, but they appear to be playing a much tighter, much better defense. The personnel combinations are really obvious, lots of young players contributing."
Last Sunday against the Lions, the Packers offense managed only two touchdowns: Rodgers' 20-yard first-quarter TD to Jermichael Finley and his go-ahead 22-yard TD to Randall Cobb in the fourth quarter. But the Packers won because of safety M.D. Jennings' 72-yard interception return for a touchdown and the way the defense, trailing 17-14, held the Lions to a field goal late in the fourth quarter when a touchdown likely would have put the game out of reach.
"What you want is a confidence level with your team that there's going to be days that one side of the ball's not clicking. And you're good enough that the other side picks up the slack," Capers said. "To me, that's an indication of a good football team.
"That way, you don't always have to depend on having to outscore people. And obviously being a defensive guy, I've always felt that if you have a good defense, it gives you a chance."
Packers injury report
Out: CB Sam Shields (ankle); DB Charles Woodson (collarbone). Did not participate: LB Clay Matthews (hamstring). Limited: WR Donald Driver (thumb); WR Greg Jennings (abdomen); FB John Kuhn (hamstring); LB Terrell Manning (shoulder); TE Andrew Quarless (knee). Full: DT B.J. Raji (ankle); LB Vic So’oto (illness); LB Erik Walden (ankle).
Jennings took most of the opponent reps on Thursday. If he feels good on Friday, he’s got a chance to play on Sunday.
“It’s really going to be a medical, conditioning, those types – we’ll have to talk it through,” McCarthy said. “The biggest thing was to get him on course to make progress and right now he’s taken every step. That’s very encouraging.”
Giants injury report
Did not participate: RB Ahmad Bradshaw (foot); WR Domenik Hixon (ankle); DT Linval Joseph (knee). Limited: S Kenny Phillips (knee); LB Keith Rivers (calf/knee); LB Jacquian Williams (knee). Full: C David Baas (ankle/elbow); S Tyler Sash (ankle); G Chris Snee (ankle).
The Giants’ injury report was unchanged from Wednesday.