New York Giants 37, Green Bay Packers 20
The number: 3 — Take away the lost fumbles on special teams, and the Packers had lost three fumbles all season. They lost three on Sunday alone. The Giants turned the first into a field goal and the last into a touchdown. The second fumble came on a first-down play from the Giants' 30, likely taking a touchdown off the scoreboard (see The Moment).
The moment: One team made a play and one team failed to make a play.
For the Giants, what else could it be other than the Hail Mary? The Packers trailed 13-10 and would be getting the ball to start the second half. All things considered, they were in good shape. Then came the defining play of the game — and the defining play of the football season for the state of Wisconsin, if you're a Badgers fan. The Packers had eight men in coverage and still only Charles Woodson and Charlie Peprah were around Hakeem Nicks when Eli Manning's ball floated toward the end zone. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers and cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt had warned the players about Nicks' ability to come down with the ball in jump-ball situations, and sure enough, he plucked the ball out of the air for a killer touchdown to end the half. Then again, that play never would have happened if not for Ahmad Bradshaw's 24-yard run out of bounds after the Giants had essentially given up on the first half.
"It's a hard play to swallow – a play that shouldn't happen," Woodson said. "They throw the ball up and I came over from the middle of the field. I thought the ball was going to carry a little more when I went up and it didn't carry as far as I thought it would. (Nicks) was in front of me, but just looking at the play, I think the defense has to slow those guys coming off the ball, so that they're not running down the field free with an opportunity to get a steal. That play shouldn't have happened."
Then, on the opening possession of the third quarter, Aaron Rodgers fumbled away the ball on a strip by Osi Umenyiora, who had beaten left tackle Chad Clifton with an inside move. Wide open on the play was Greg Jennings, who had toasted cornerback Aaron Ross with a double move. Jennings was so open that he would have had an easy touchdown with even a decent throw.
"We had some opportunities … Greg there probably for a touchdown, get the ball knocked out of my hands. Just stuff like that went against us tonight," Rodgers said.
The player: Manning, of course, is getting the accolades. He is the quarterback, after all. But Nicks was incredible in the first half. Peprah's shoulder-block tackle attempt was simply poor fundamentals, but most receivers would have hit the deck after that big hit. Instead, it was Peprah who hit the deck and it was Nicks who was off to the races for a 66-yard touchdown that made it 10-3 in the first quarter. He caught seven passes for 165 yards and two touchdowns.
The key: During the Packers' 15-1 season, just about everything coach Mike McCarthy touched turned to gold. All season, his pedal-to-the-metal approach reaped huge rewards. Not this time. McCarthy's had success with surprise onside kicks, including Jordy Nelson's recovery against Denver on Oct. 2. With the score tied at 10 early in the second quarter, the Giants' Derrick Martin fielded Mason Crosby's high-hopper cleanly. McCarthy's decision to go for it on fourth-and-5 early in the fourth quarter while trailing 20-13 wasn't much of a gamble considering the field position, but that backfired, too, when Rodgers was sacked. The Giants turned the short field into a field goal and a 10-point lead. Even the decision to defer after the opening coin toss didn't work, with the Giants scoring a field goal to open the game and the Packers turning it over on the opening possession of the second half.
Packers said: "It surprised me because the calls that we made, they were good calls. Like the play before halftime, that's a great call for that play. You couldn't be in any better defense. You're dropping eight in coverage and only rushing three. You'll give a quarterback scramble in that situation but you have eight guys dropping back. Coach couldn't call a better defense. That long touchdown to Nicks, we rushed three, dropped eight – can't call a better defense. The execution, the focus, the attention to detail wasn't where it needed to be. I'm sorry. I feel sorry for (defensive coordinator Dom) Capers and our coaching staff. We couldn't have been more prepared. Coach obviously came in and took the blame (but) it wasn't his fault." — NT B.J. Raji, on whether he was surprised the defense couldn't right the ship this season.
Giants said: "It was just a great catch by him. Everybody knew what to do. It is one of the few that I have thrown up and it was first one that was ever caught. It was just a great job by Hakeem. I just kind of threw it up there and as the ball was coming down I saw Hakeem in the mix, saw him jump up with no one else going after the ball. It was just a great job by him to hold onto the ball and get a touchdown. It gave us all the momentum going into halftime." — QB Eli Manning, on the Hail Mary to Nicks.
Extra points: Once upon a time, the Packers were 13-0 at home in the playoffs. Now, their 2002, 2004, 2007 and 2011 seasons have ended with postseason losses at Lambeau Field. ... In four of the last five years, the NFC's No. 1 seed got bounced in the divisional round, with the Packers joining Dallas in 2007, the Giants in 2008 and Falcons in 2010. ... It was a miserable day for the running backs. John Kuhn fumbled and sustained a knee injury that ended his day. An update was not available after the game. James Starks dropped a pass, botched an assignment that forced Rodgers to run with the ball and allowed a sack, Brandon Saine allowed a sack and Ryan Grant had a killer fumble in the fourth quarter. ... The Packers finished with six sacks in their final seven games, including the one by Brad Jones on Sunday. Jones also blocked a field goal, the Packers' first in the playoffs since Cletidus Hunt against San Francisco on Jan. 13, 2002. ... The Packers finished minus-3 in turnovers. They'd done that only twice before under McCarthy. ... Speaking of turnovers, the Packers were plus-24 for the season, which was second in the league for the season and second in franchise history (plus-26 in 1943). ... With three catches, Donald Driver has 49 in the playoffs, breaking Antonio Freeman's record (47). ... Rodgers set a single-game franchise postseason record for the most rushing yards by a quarterback with 66 yards on seven carries. That topped Rodgers' 39 yards at Chicago in last year's NFC title game and is the most by an NFL quarterback in a playoff game since Atlanta's Michael Vick posted 119 rushing yards against St. Louis on Jan. 15, 2005.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.