Behind Enemy Lines: Giants better with Boley

The last time the Giants faced the 49ers on Nov. 13 in Week 10 of the season, New York ended up losing the one player that defensive end Justin Tuck would later say was the one teammate they could least afford to lose on the defensive side of the ball. That was linebacker Michael Boley, who is back now and playing some of his best football – and shutting down some of the NFL's best tight ends.

More importantly though, he's been the primary neutralizing force that has seen some of the league's top tight ends such as Jason Witten of the Cowboys, Tony Gonzalez of the Falcons, and Jermichael Finley of the Packers held to just 15 catches for 150 yards and no scores against the Giants in the team's past three games – all of them must-wins for New York's season to continue.

In their first meeting with the 49ers, Boley suffered a hamstring strain that knocked him out of the second half of that game and forced him to miss the Giants' next two games, against the Eagles and Saints. The Giants went on to lose that game 27-20, the first of a four-game losing streak.

When Boley did eventually return to the lineup against the Packers on Dec. 4, 2011, his coverage responsibilities were limited as the coaches likely wanted to make sure Boley was closer to full strength for the all-important season ending games against their division rivals.

The following week in a must-win game against the Cowboys, Boley was closer to full strength and took on more of his coverage assignments. In that game, he held Witten to three catches for 12 yards and no scores. The Giants went on to win that game 37-34, a game that helped put the Giants in great position to win the NFC East.

"Michael Boley (has) played very well," said coach Tom Coughlin when asked about his veteran linebacker's most recent play against the Packers. "He did an awful lot of things. He rushed the passer with the two sacks, he had hits on the quarterback, he was very physical in his tackling, and he covered well."

This week when the Giants pay a second visit to San Francisco, they will be bringing a healthy Boley who will likely be responsible for keeping 49ers tight end Vernon Davis in check, which is no small task.

Against the Saints in their divisional playoff game last week, Davis caught seven passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning 14-yard reception from quarterback Alex Smith that came with nine seconds left on the clock.

Boley smiled and said that his availability doesn't change that much as far as what the defense will be able to do. But Coughlin doesn't necessarily buy that thinking.

"When he is on the field, we have a lot more options then we have when he is not," he said.

Still Boley says the credit for the Giants' defense's strong play in the final quarter of the season and playoffs is not because of him, but rather because of the mentality that Coughlin has preached from day one about finishing.

"We have to finish what we started," he said.

THE GIANTS' ROSTER REALLY HASN'T CHANGED that much from Dec. 4, the first time they faced the Green Bay Packers, to Jan. 15, when they played the Packers again.

So what then was the difference in the outcome from the first game, which the Giants lost by a field goal, and the second one, which they won convincingly 37-20?

"I think it was just more of a mindset that we had and our preparation that we've been going through during the week," said safety Antrel Rolle. "Ever since the first game, we've had all hands on deck. Guys have been in tune with what's at stake, and I think that had the most to do with anything."

Rolle smiled when asked to elaborate on the team's mindset. He said, "We're not going to be denied. And we understand that what we have as a team is not all about talent, it's about chemistry, and we're gelling. We have one goal in mind and that's to win a championship."

"We have to finish what we started," added linebacker Michael Boley about the team's mindset of late. "We started the season on a good note, but it's not how you start, it's how you finish, and that's one of the things (head coach) Tom (Coughlin) has said to us from day one."

Boley said that the Giants' turnaround came immediately after the team first faced the Packers this season.

"The games we lost before that one – not much was said and heads were hanging a little bit," Boley revealed. "But after that game, guys were coming into the locker room and were like, 'We're going to see them again.' And we suddenly had something to look forward to because we played hard in that game, even though we didn't get the win, and we knew we left a lot out there on the field."

While Rolle allowed that no team, including the Giants, are unstoppable, having the right attitude about what they're capable of doing has gone a long way toward forging a bond with the different personalities in the locker room.

"I wouldn't say we're unstoppable, but our mindset is extreme at this point, and we're not going to be denied," he said about the Giants' upcoming rematch with the 49ers, this time for the 2011 NFC championship. "I might be a little biased, but in my mind, we can't be beaten, and that's the approach we're taking week in and week out."

WIDE RECEIVER HAKEEN NICKS IS KNOWN in the New York market for having extra-large hands.

After his spectacular catch on what the Giants call a "Flood Tip" in which quarterback Eli Manning put the ball up for grabs and Nicks plucked it out of the air for the touchdown to give the Giants a 20-10 lead at the half at Green Bay, now the rest of the country knows all about Nicks' hands as well.

"Those are some special hands," said Coughlin, who is a former receivers coach. "I could give you a bunch of guys that I personally had an opportunity to coach that were great players, but this guy – when he gets his mitts on the ball, that's why when I said (Sunday) night that when I saw those red gloves go up, I thought we had a good chance to catch that one."

Nicks, a former high school basketball player, said he used those skills to shield the ball and to snatch it out of the air.

"Big hands run in my family – my mom, my dad," he said. "It was just a matter of me going up and getting the ball."

Nicks smiled when asked if his catch against the Packers, which was initially made against his helmet a la former Giants receiver David Tyree's famous reception in the Super Bowl, was his best to date.

"It's probably one of the top ones," he said. "In a situation like that, yeah, I rank it as one of the top."

ANTREL ROLLE WASN'T PLEASED TO HEAR that 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said last weekend he was praying for the Packers to get beat. Rolle himself said Monday that the Giants could not be beat.

"Their wish has been granted," said Rolle, speaking Tuesday on WFAN-AM.

"I don't give a damn who we're playing, man," he said. "That's my take. I'll take any opponent, any given day. That's my attitude. If someone has a problem with it, oh well. But that's how I am. That's how I was raised. I don't shy away from any opponent. My heart doesn't pump any Kool-Aid, only blood. I'm ready for whenever, however, whatever, however it gets to me. I'm ready for it."

THE GIANTS' DEFENSE HAS STOPPED THEIR OPPONENTS on fourth down five consecutive times going back to the regular season. The latest stop came when Boley sacked Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers early in the fourth quarter for a six-yard loss at the Giants' 39-yard line.

New York proceeded to drive down the field and convert on a 35-yard field goal by Lawrence Tynes following the change of possession on downs.

The Giants have now won five consecutive road playoff games under Coughlin, including four in 2007 and Sunday's win over Green Bay. (New York was the "visiting" team in Super Bowl XLII.)

The Giants' only road playoff loss under Coughlin came in the 2006 NFC Wild Card game, when they lost 23-20 to the Eagles.

Giants player notes

--- QB Eli Manning now has 157 postseason completions, which ties Phil Simms for first place on the team's career postseason list. His 330 passing yards were also a career postseason high and the third-highest total by a Giants quarterback in a playoff game, behind Kerry Collins (381 yards in the 2000 NFC Championship Game and 342 yards in a wild-card game in San Francisco on Jan. 5, 2003).

--- RB Ahmad Bradshaw finished as the third leading rusher in the postseason with 126 yards on 26 carries, behind Denver's Willis McGahee (137 yards) and Houston's Arian Foster (285 yards).

--- RB Brandon Jacobs, who had a rushing touchdown, now has five postseason scores (four rushing, one receiving) in his career. That breaks a tie with Joe Morris and Ken Strong and moves him into second place on the franchise's career postseason list behind receiver Amani Toomer (seven playoff touchdowns).

--- WR Hakeem Nicks, who caught seven passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns, now ranks second for most receiving yards in a postseason game on the franchise's all-time list, behind Bob Schnelker (175 receiving yards at Baltimore on Dec. 27, 1959).

--- WR Mario Manningham has now recorded two touchdowns in as many weeks. He finished with three catches for 31 yards against the Packers.

--- TE Travis Beckum had two catches for 22 yards, including a long of 12 yards against the Packers. His previous long reception was a 67-yard catch, which also came against the Packers during their regular-season meeting on Dec. 4, 2011.

--- P Steve Weatherford is currently ranked seventh (out of 10) league wide in net average for postseason play. Weatherford will bring a 40.5 net average into this weekend's NFC Championship Game.

--- DE Osi Umenyiora is currently the league's postseason leader in sacks with 3.0, which is one ahead of teammate Michael Boley.

--- CB Will Blackmon, who has returned five punts for 28 yards this postseason for the Giants, has the same number of return yards as league leader Julian Edelman of the Patriots, whose 28 return yards have come on two returns.

--- K Lawrence Tynes now owns the Giants' franchise record for career postseason extra points attempted and made (17 each).

--- LB Michael Boley's two sacks of quarterback Aaron Rodgers were the first of his career in postseason games played.

Giants report card: New York 37, Green Bay 20

PASSING OFFENSE: A -- Quarterback Eli Manning continued to show why he's an elite quarterback by making smart decisions with the ball. Although he was under duress for a good amount of snaps, he somehow managed to move away from the pressure to buy time and find an open receiver, his lone interception coming when he was hit just as he released the ball. Speaking of his receivers, Hakeem Nicks led the charge with 165 yards and two touchdowns on seven catches. As an added bonus, the trio of Nicks, Mario Manningham and Victor Cruz did an outstanding job with blocking down field to spring each other for additional yards after the catch.

RUSHING OFFENSE: C-plus -- Finishing with 95 yards on 27 carries, the Giants' running game came picked up momentum in the second half, as the offensive line did a better job of getting things blocked up. Another problem with the running game has been Ahmad Bradshaw, who lacks the breakaway speed he had earlier in the season, this due to his foot injury. More importantly though is the fact that Bradshaw rarely exhibited patience in following his blockers, instead choosing to make the cutback and pursue another hole. Meanwhile Brandon Jacobs, who in the past three weeks has run with power, looked tentative on one too many runs, finishing with 22 yards on nine carries (2.4 average).

PASS DEFENSE: A -- The Giants finished with four sacks and an interception using mostly a four-man rush, and they were able to take away quarterback Aaron Rodgers' weapons. Safeties Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant were instrumental in coverage, Rolle as the slot corner and Grant as the third safety. Also contributing to the solid defensive effort was linebacker Michael Boley, who held tight end Jermichael Finley to just 37 yards on four catches. Boley, who seems to be over his hamstring strain from earlier in the year, did a nice job of getting into his drops quickly to close up the gaps in the middle of the field between the linebackers and the safeties.

RUSH DEFENSE: C-plus -- The Packers exploited the Giants for 147 yards on 23 carries and of those 147 yards, 66 were from quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the Packers' leading rusher. All too often on the pass rush, the Giants' rushers were fighting their way to get to the quarterback while the coverage guys were too quick to retreat. This left a gaping hole for Rodgers to exploit with his legs, and with the pass rushers losing more battles up front than they won, it was no wonder that Rodgers had success with running the ball.

SPECIAL TEAMS: B-plus -- The Giants overcame a couple of early miscues, including a missed field goal by Lawrence Tynes and a kickoff out of bounds, with some stellar play in the game. The biggest plays, of course, were the two onside kicks that the Giants recovered. Credit the Giants' front line for waiting to see what kicker Mason Crosby was going to do before they retreated down the field. In the return game, the Giants again came up empty on punt returns, while on kickoffs, Derrick Martin had the lone return for four yards. On the other side of the coin, the Packers returned four of Tynes' kickoffs for 94 yards while returner Randall Cobb was held to just one punt return for 16 yards thanks to fine punting by Steve Weatherford.

COACHING: A -- Every week, head coach Tom Coughlin comes up with a new message to inspire his team, and this week, he dusted off an oldie but goodie when he reintroduced the "road warrior" concept. Coughlin continues to foster belief in his program, and in the players' trust of one another, proving that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. On the offensive side of things, the Giants took several risks that paid off handsomely including several passing attempts on third and long and the second quarter "Flood Tip" that fooled the Packers, who were perhaps expecting the Giants to try a shorter pass in order to get into field-goal range. Moreover, credit the play-calling of offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride for working with what the Packers gave the Giants' offense, such as the deep zone which was designed to take away the big passing play but that left the short and intermediate routes there for the taking. On defense, coordinator Perry Fewell kept things simple by mostly employing a four-man rush and then relying on his coverage to take away Rodgers' weapons.

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