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World’s Best Preview: Giants-Sized Challenge Awaits Packers

It’s unquestioned strength vs unquestioned strength when Aaron Rodgers faces the Giants’ defense. Giants coordinator Steve Spagnuolo provided some great insight on Rodgers in advance of the game. Plus, stud safeties, the Giants’ free-agent payoff, “Bad Eli” and “Playoff Eli,” Beckham, situational football, special teams and much, much more in the best and biggest preview in the history of mankind.

The table has been run.

Can a Super Bowl be won?

The Green Bay Packers’ quest for a 14th NFL championship begins on Sunday afternoon against the New York Giants.

The key to it all, of course, will be Aaron Rodgers. The running game isn’t consistently good enough to win a Super Bowl. The defense certainly isn’t good enough to win a Super Bowl. But Rodgers and his deep group of pass catchers are good enough. If the Packers are going to turn their six-game winning streak into a 10-game winning streak and the most improbable of championships, it will be up to Rodgers and Co.

Rodgers was nothing short of sensational down the stretch. During the winning streak, he ranked No. 1 in passer rating (121.0), No. 1 in touchdown passes (15) and No. 1 in interceptions (zero).

Remember when he was struggling? Through the first quarter of the season, Rodgers had the worst completion percentage in the NFL (56.1) and ranked 29th in yards per attempt (6.30). During the winning streak, he’s fourth in completion percentage (71.0 percent) and second in yards per attempt (8.34). Those are differences of about 15 percent and 2.0 yards per attempt, leading to a jump in passer rating of more than 33 points.

Making the late-season success even more impressive was the competition and the must-win circumstances. In terms of opponent passer rating, the Vikings finished fourth, the Texans seventh, the Seahawks ninth and the Eagles 11th. Rodgers demolished those four defenses with 11 touchdown passes.

 It won’t be any easier against the Giants. In fact, it will be the biggest challenge of the season. If defense wins championships, the Giants very well could be hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in a month. The Giants finished second in opponent passer rating (75.8). They were one of only two teams with more interceptions (17) than touchdown passes allowed (15). The Giants have an elite pass rusher in Olivier Vernon, the best cornerback trio in the league with Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Eli Apple, and a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in safety Landon Collins. The unit is put together by Steve Spagnuolo, who is regarded as one of the top defensive coordinators in the league.

Spagnuolo leaned on Giants coach Ben McAdoo, Rodgers’ former quarterbacks coach, for help headed into the Week 5 matchup. It worked. Even with Rodgers-Cromartie missing time due to injury and Apple barely playing, the Giants held Rodgers to 23-of-45 passing (51.1 percent), two touchdowns, two interceptions and a 65.0 passer rating.

Spagnuolo is leaning on McAdoo again headed into the rematch.

“When you are a great player and an elite player and one of the top quarterbacks in the league — take away this and he goes that way, take away that and he goes this way,” Spagnuolo told reporters in New York this week. “Look, there are some things that we think we need to do. Whether that happens or not, we will see, but he finds ways.

“I have talked with Ben a lot this week. I will see something on tape and go running down to his office and say, ‘Why is he doing that?’ Sometimes Ben has an answer and sometimes he is like, ‘I don’t know. He is just a great athlete and figured it out.’”

Spagnuolo went on to provide some marvelous insight on Rodgers. Sometimes, Rodgers gets out of the pocket and extends plays by necessity. Sometimes. But not always.

“The one thing that he does a great job of is I think he purposely extends the downs sometimes because I think he knows that his receivers can get open eventually and then it ends up being a big play. I think that sometimes he just says, ‘Hey, I am going to let this down go a ways.’ He knows that he can get himself in and out of trouble. Very rarely does he get tackled or get put in a tough situation and it makes it tough on the guys in the back end.”

And then Rodgers unleashes his uncanny accuracy. As the season has progressed, Rodgers has gotten sharper with his downfield throws. On passes defined as “deep” (thrown 15-plus yards) over the past six games, Rodgers ranked second in completions (20) and yards (643) and sixth in rating (116.7).

“The most amazing thing to me about Aaron Rodgers is all the different places and positions that he can throw the football and be accurate,” Spagnuolo said. “A lot of guys have to be perfect when the ball is accurate. Aaron can be anywhere. He can be running right, running left, being up inside, off his back foot, not (having) his feet set, and he can flick the ball anywhere and he is just accurate with every throw that he makes.”

New York, however, wound up finishing second in the NFL in scoring defense. It stops the run. It stops the pass. It stops opponents on third down and in the red zone. It forces turnovers.

That’s the unit standing in the way of Rodgers and the streaking Packers.

“We respect all of our opponents,” Rodgers said. “We fear none of them.”

THE FREE-AGENT JACKPOT

Far more often than not, the teams that win free agency in March don’t win games in the fall. Look at this year’s Jaguars. They spent a league-high $224.5 million in free agency this offseason. The payoff? They went from five wins in 2015 to three wins in 2016.

Oops.

This year’s Giants, however, have gotten a terrific payoff. They spent the second-most money in free agency with $210.6 million and were rewarded with a five-game improvement in the standings — 6-10 to 11-5.

The money was spent on defense. In terms of total value of their contracts, Vernon was the second-most expensive player with $85 million over five years, Jenkins was the fifth-most expensive with $62.5 million over five years and defensive tackle Damon Harrison was eighth-most expensive with $46.25 million over five years. Linebacker Kelvin Sheppard ($840,000 for one year) was the fourth defensive starter added in free agency this past offseason. Two other Giants defensive starters were signed in free agency: linebacker Jonathan Casillas (2015; $8 million over three years) and Rodgers-Cromartie (2014; $35 million over five years).

The investment has paid off. The Giants went from 30th in points allowed in 2015 with 27.6 to second in 2016 with 17.8. That’s an improvement of nearly 10 points per game.

“When you go into free agency, you’re not sure how things are going to go,” McAdoo said during his Wednesday conference call. “You identify players that you think can help you, players that are talented and can fit in. Until you get them in the building, you’re really not sure on how they’ll fit. But we hit the lottery there, we feel like, personality-wise. We did our homework, we did our research, and the guys have really fit into the team concept.”

Vernon, a second-team All-Pro, ranks fifth with 7.5 sacks since Week 9 and led the NFL for the season with 17 tackles for losses.

Jenkins was voted to his first Pro Bowl and was a second-team All-Pro. He had three interceptions, ranked seventh with 18 passes defensed and generally shadows the opponent’s No. 1 receiver. According to Football Outsiders, Jenkins ranked eighth among cornerbacks with 5.5 yards allowed per pass. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed a 64.8 passer rating.

Harrison posted 86 tackles — the most for any defensive tackle in the NFL. The first-team All-Pro anchors a defense that ranks second in yards allowed per carry.

“The guy’s a beast. He’s a one-man show,” Casillas said.

Rodgers-Cromartie, a second-team All-Pro, finished second in the NFL with six interceptions and 21 passes defensed. According to Football Outsiders, Rodgers-Cromartie led the NFL with 3.5 yards allowed per pass. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed a 56.6 passer rating.

Casillas ranks second on the team with 92 tackles and is a captain on defense.

Sheppard moved into the starting lineup at midseason.

The free-agent powered defense is why the Giants are back in the playoffs for the first time since winning the Super Bowl in 2011.

“We have some talented players on the defensive side, but they enjoy seeing each other have some success,” McAdoo said. “It’s not all about them. It’s about the team mentality and the team first. Good defense fits together like nuts and bolts and they’ve bought into it.”

THE STAR SAFETY DANCE

At Alabama, they traded big plays.

At Green Bay on Oct. 9, they traded jerseys.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was the Packers’ first-round pick in 2014, going No. 21 overall. Landon Collins was the Giants’ second-round pick in 2015, going No. 33 overall.

On Friday, they were named to the Associated Press’ prestigious All-Pro team.

On Sunday, they will be arguably the two best defensive players on the field. Pending a trip to the Super Bowl, they’ll line up together as two of the NFC’s safeties at the Pro Bowl on Jan. 29.

“It’s a dream come true,” Clinton-Dix said.

After a solid rookie season and even better second season, Clinton-Dix was expected to have a breakout season in 2016. He obliged, earning second-team All-Pro honors. Clinton-Dix was first on the team with five interceptions and second with 83 tackles. Clinton-Dix, Collins, Houston’s Quintin Demps and Oakland’s Reggie Nelson tied for the NFL lead in interceptions among safeties.

Collins was a first-team All-Pro this year and could walk away with NFL Defensive Player of the Year because of his dominance at the line of scrimmage and deep coverage. Collins was the only player in the NFL with five-plus interceptions and four-plus sacks. He tied for first among safeties with 13 passes defensed (with Baltimore’s Eric Weddle) and ranked second among safeties with 125 tackles (Jacksonville’s Johnathan Cyprien had 127).

Remarkably, he’s the only player in NFL history with 100-plus solo tackles, two-plus sacks, five-plus interceptions and 12-plus passes defensed in a season.

“We’re like brothers,” Collins told reporters in New York this week. “That’s my boy. We train together and almost do everything together. We have the same agent. We do everything. That’s my boy.”

They almost weren’t boys. Clinton-Dix was starting at Alabama when he hosted Collins for his recruiting visit.

“He was the No. 1 safety coming out of college and I was too going into college,” Clinton-Dix recalled. “When he came in, (I told him) it’s a process that you have to buy into it. He took it from me as if I was saying, ‘Don’t come here.’ That’s what he thought I was telling, like, ‘Don’t come here. I don’t want you to take my spot.’ He came, bought into the process. He didn’t play much as a freshman, he was just on special teams — that’s part of the process, buying into the process and just waiting you turn. He did that, he came out in three years, was a top pick. He’s been growing from there. He’s been growing every year in this league.”

So has Clinton-Dix, and not just on the field. Clinton-Dix, who turned 24 on Dec. 21, was voted by his peers as one of the team’s two playoff captains for the defense. The other is Julius Peppers, who will turn 37 on Jan. 18.

“He’s been a leader since he came in the door, but this year more specifically, he’s stepped up, he’s been a little more vocal,” Peppers said. “His play on the field, that’s the main thing. You’ve got to play well because, otherwise, what you say doesn’t mean anything. He’s backed his words up with his performance and he’s a great leader for us.”

Clinton-Dix would love to get an interception to wind up with bragging rights in that category. But more importantly, Clinton-Dix wants the bragging rights of another victory and a chance to play again next weekend.

“I wish him the best,” he said. “I hope he goes out and has a tremendous game and also takes an ‘L.’ I hope he plays good and has the time of his life on Sunday.”

INSIDE THE GIANTS

— Five years after Eli Manning retires, the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters are going to have a heck of a time debating the merits of his candidacy.

What’s Hall of Fame worthy? Two Super Bowl rings. Two Super Bowl MVPs. 199 (and counting) consecutive starts (210, including playoffs). Seventh all-time in passing touchdowns with 320. Eighth all-time in passing yards with 48,214.

What’s not Hall of Fame worthy? In this context, it’s perhaps more meaningful to compare Manning to his still-playing peers. Among players with 1,500 career passing attempts, Manning ranks second with 215 interceptions, 21st in completion percentage at 59.7 and 23rd in passer rating at 83.7.

So, will it be “Bad Eli” or “Playoff Eli” running the offensive show on Sunday.

“He’s a champion. He’s a champion. That’s what makes him good,” Packers linebacker Julius Peppers said. “He’s been there, he’s done it.”

Since beating the Packers on the way to victory in the Super Bowl following the 2011 regular season, Manning and the Giants failed to get to the playoffs. New York’s record? A woeful 28-36 during those four seasons. That’s hardly the stuff of legend. What is the stuff of legend is Manning’s play in the 2007 and 2011 playoffs: An 8-0 record with 15 touchdowns and only two interceptions.

The Giants are finally back in the postseason with an 11-5 record. And that gives Manning, who turned 36 on Tuesday, a chance to win a third Super Bowl ring. Only four quarterbacks have accomplished that feat.

“It feels good,” Manning said in a conference call this week. “Feels good to win games during the regular season and to be in this position. You definitely want to take advantage of it. You don’t know if you get more shots. You know how hard it is after these last years, how hard it is to get here. So, you want to try to take advantage of it, go out there and have a great week of preparation, and hopefully go out there and play well.”

But the credit for the Giants’ resurgence doesn’t go to Manning. He threw 26 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Only three quarterbacks threw more picks than Manning this season. His 86.0 passer rating ranked 22nd. As a consequence, New York finished 26th with 19.4 points per game. It failed to score 20 points in any of its final five games.

But with two brilliant four-game playoff runs, Manning became a legend. With time running out on his career, he’s hungry to do it again.

“You understand that I’m closer to the end of my career than the beginning,” he said. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen the next years. Whether you make playoffs or whether you can still play at a level that you can be on a team. You want to take advantage of every opportunity and don’t let a great opportunity slip away.”

— Manning has a transcendent talent in receiver Odell Beckham Jr. He ranked in the top five in the league in receptions (101), yards (1,367), touchdowns (10), first downs (65) and 25-yard gains (14). Throw it deep or throw it short, and Beckham is a big play waiting to happen. Since entering the league in 2014, Beckham leads the NFL with nine touchdowns of 60-plus yards and ranks fifth among receivers with 1,599 yards after the catch.

“He’s as good as there is in the league in terms of his ability to change direction, his explosiveness, all those things,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.

After a controversial getaway to Miami after Sunday’s win at Washington, Beckham was eager to look ahead to his first career playoff game.

“I’m excited about the opportunity to even be able to play in the playoffs,” he said this week. “I feel like I've talked about it for years since I've been here and it's finally here. I'm just trying to hold it all together and I just don't know where I'm going to be at. I know I'm going to be very amped up and very excited.”

The Packers surprisingly held him in check in the first matchup with five catches (12 targets) for 56 yards and one late touchdown. The Packers, however, were coming off a bye week while Beckham was coming off a Monday night game at Minnesota. He’ll be attacking an injury-plagued secondary that yielded a passer rating of 103.9, second-worst in the playoff field, according to Pro Football Focus.

If it’s a close game in the waning moments, Beckham wants the ball.

“I just don't know what more you would ask for,” he said of those big moments. “It’s fourth-and-1, it's 1:36 left on the clock, you're down five, you just need a first down to stay alive, but you score a touchdown. It's something about those moments, knowing you have to get it done. There's no ifs, ands or buts about it, there's no way around it, you just have to get it done. I do enjoy those moments. It's like taking the last shot: You never know if you're going to fail unless you shoot.”

— On paper, the Giants’ running game is awful. It ranked 29th with 88.3 yards per game and 30th with 3.55 yards per carry. That’s a misleading set of stats, though.

Over the first eight games, the Giants ranked 32nd in rushing with 68.3 rushing yards per game and 31st with 3.19 yards per carry. In Week 5 at Lambeau, when Orleans Darkwa was the starting runner, the Giants rushed for just 43 yards with a 2.9-yard average. Over the final eight games of the regular season, the Giants ranked a much more respectable 18th with 108.3 rushing yards per game and 25th with 3.81 yards per carry. It’s not just the production, it’s the attempts. New York averaged 21.4 carries per game in the first eight games. That’s up to 28.4 for the final eight games.

“The commitment to the run game is there,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think their double teams are much tighter, no wasted steps and it’s definitely a vertical, downhill run game, and it’s been very productive for them. I think like all of us when you’re coaching your team, you have a vision of how you want to play and I think their emphasis on running the football is clearly evident and it will be a big focus for us come Sunday. They’re committed to it and they’re doing a much better job.”

The Giants have received a boost with rookie Paul Perkins, who got his first start last week against Washington. A fifth-round pick from UCLA, Perkins responded with 102 yards on 21 attempts, a 4.86-yard average. In the final three games, he rushed for 226 yards with a 4.68-yard average.

“I remember when we played him in college,” said Packers linebacker Blake Martinez, a Stanford product. “He’s also from Arizona, so I’ve known him for a long time. He’s the type of player who’s able to do it all. He can go out of the backfield and catch the ball, and he’s able to go north and south and also go east and west when he needs to make you miss. That makes him a dynamic player all across the board. You can’t look at him and be like, ‘He’s in the game, so it’s definitely going to be a pass play’ or ‘definitely going to be a run play.’ You have to be ready for him. He’s a complete back.”

The lack of a running game killed the Giants in the first matchup. They averaged less than 3.0 yards per carry, and that eventually translated into New York going 4-of-13 on third down — including 1-of-6 in the first half and 2-of-10 through three quarters.

"We had a number of third-and-longs in that game — I think seven or eight were third-and-10 or 10-plus," Capers said. "When you can get people in those situations, normally you’re going to be pretty good on third down."

— The big matchup up front will be against Vernon, especially with fellow defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (seven sacks) set to miss a fifth consecutive game with a core-muscle injury. Vernon led the Giants with 8.5 sacks. But sacks only tell half the story. According to the preview at Football Outsiders, Vernon had 53.5 hurries — a whopping 10 more than any other defender in the league. For added perspective, Pierre-Paul had 22.5. Datone Jones led the Packers with 19.5.

As the Giants’ right defensive end, he’ll see plenty of left tackle David Bakhtiari, who was named second-team All-Pro on Friday. He allowed just three sacks and was flagged three times for holding this season, according to STATS. In his first three seasons, the averages were 6.5 sacks and 6.0 holding calls.

“I guess you can say it’s more or less of a common opponent,” Bakhtiari said. “I think he has the same intangibles that he had in Week 5 but he’s not the same player he was in Week 5, just like the Giants aren’t the same team they were in Week 5, just like we’re not the same team we were in Week 5. I think I do some things differently than I was doing back in Week 5. For Vernon, he’s a hell of a player. He’s an every-down player. The playoffs is a whole new ballgame and it’s going to be a tough, fun matchup.”

HISTORY LESSONS

— You might have heard: The Packers lost to the Giants in the 2007 and 2011 playoffs. In 2007, the Packers rolled over the Giants 35-13 in Week 2 at New York but lost 23-20 in overtime at Lambeau Field in the NFC Championship Game. In 2011, the Packers beat the Giants 38-35 at New York to improve to 12-0 but got crushed by the Giants 37-20 at Lambeau in the divisional round.

The Packers, of course, beat the Giants 23-16 in Week 5 at Lambeau Field, so the story lines are similar.

“I don’t think anybody really thinks that,” Rodgers said of the playoff history. “I don’t know how many guys were here in ‘07 besides probably just me and Mason (Crosby). And in ‘11, not many guys on either side — probably just a handful. We’re playing against the 2016 Giants and they’re playing against the 2016 Packers in 2017.”

For the record, 10 members of the Packers were with the team in 2011 (Rodgers, Crosby, receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, offensive linemen T.J. Lang and Bryan Bulaga, linebacker Clay Matthews, safety Morgan Burnett, running back James Starks and snapper Brett Goode). Only six members of the Giants were with the team in 2011 (Manning, linebackers Zak DeOssie and Mark Herzlich, receiver Victor Cruz, tackle Will Beatty and Pierre-Paul).

— With the Packers scuffling along at 4-5, McCarthy took the time to remind everyone: “Let’s just state the facts: I’m a highly successful NFL head coach.” Guess he was right: McCarthy joined a short and prestigious list by getting the Packers back to the playoffs. Green Bay has qualified for the postseason for eight consecutive seasons. That feat is matched in NFL history by only Bill Belichick (also an active streak) and Hall of Famers Chuck Noll and Tom Landry.

— The four franchises with the most postseason berths in NFL history are the Dallas Cowboys (32), Green Bay Packers (32), New York Giants (32) and Pittsburgh Steelers (30). All four qualified for the playoffs. The Cowboys and Steelers lead the way with 34 postseason victories, with the Packers not far behind with 32.

The Packers lead with 13 NFL championships, followed by the Giants with eight, the Steelers with six and the Cowboys with five. Of the 12 playoff teams, only the Falcons and Texans haven’t won a championship.

The Packers are 9-5 in the Wild Card round, with that .643 winning percentage trailing only Oakland (4-2) and Houston (2-1), who are .667.

— The Packers are home, which is a nice reward for winning the division, but home games haven’t meant much in the Wild Card round. Going back to 2009 — Rodgers’ first season as the starting quarterback — the home team is 14-14 on Wild Card Weekend. That includes 0-4 last year and 1-3 in 2013.

The No. 4 seeds are 8-6 in the Wild Card round during that span. That includes Green Bay beating No. 4 Washington last year, Green Bay losing as the No. 4 to San Francisco in 2013 and Green Bay losing at No. 4 Arizona in 2009.

STATS THAT AREN’T FOR LOSERS

— Crosby has converted an NFL-record 20 consecutive postseason field goals. His last miss was in the blowout win at Atlanta in the 2010 playoffs, a 50-yarder in the fourth quarter.

“Over a career, those will be the types of things I remember,” he said. “And then, obviously, having a streak like that and a record like that in the playoffs with how often we’re in the playoffs and what the importance is, that’s really huge as well. I think the importance of every kick in the playoffs is extreme and I enjoy that challenge. I enjoy going out every week, every time we’re in this situation and trying to execute.”

Making Crosby’s streak all the more impressive is the mental and physical conditions. Playoff kicks come with added pressure and, frequently, with less-than-ideal weather conditions. Seven of the field goals during the streak came in home games.

“Obviously, it’s a good run,” he said. “It’s something I plan on continuing. Every time we get in the playoffs, it’s that one-game season. Every kick matters. Every situation that we’re in has a heightened sense of importance. And just go out there focused, detailed, do the work leading up to and then go and execute on game day. That’s all you can control at this point.”

— It’s strength vs. strength when Green Bay’s got the ball and attacking New York’s defense. The situational matchups within those matchups are even more striking.

Green Bay’s offense ranked second on third down (46.7 percent conversion rate) and 10th in the red zone (60.6 percent touchdown rate, including 76.7 percent the past four weeks). The Giants are even better, though. New York finished third in third-down defense (35.3 percent conversion rate) and first in the red zone (39.5 percent touchdowns).

“Huge. Huge. Obviously converting on third downs, we talked about not turning the ball over, we talked about converting in the red zone,” guard T.J. Lang said. “I think those three areas really make a difference in these types of games. So, we did a great job the last six weeks, especially. The one thing we point to is third-down conversion has been at a very high rate, which, ultimately, you convert those third downs, you’re going to put points on the board. Those three things combined can be the difference between winning and losing.”

— The Packers finished the season with an opponent passer rating of 95.9. That’s tied for the seventh-worst mark ever for a playoff team.

Giants offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, however, sees challenges ahead for his unit, which ranked only 26th with 19.4 points per game.

“The first thing that we see, and the first thing we think of with that defense, is the fact that they've got 40 sacks,” Sullivan told reporters in New York on Thursday. “They're sixth in the league with 40 sacks and, in the past four games, all important games for them that put them in position, they have 13 takeaways. They're doing a lot of good things that, whoever is in whatever role they decide, we know that they're going to be ready to play. I think it really all starts with what they have upfront, their ability to get to the quarterback, and they've been doing a great job taking the ball away from the offense.”

Pressuring Manning will be key because, at his age and with his limited mobility, he has few answers against oncoming rushers. According to data provided courtesy of Pro Football Focus, Manning’s completion percentage when pressured was 48.4 percent (compared to a career-best 63.0 percent overall) and his passer rating was just 63.3.

— Takeaways are paramount in the Packers’ defensive plan. During the final four games of the regular season, Green Bay had a league-high 13 of them.

“I think what we’re doing now is pretty good and I’m talking about taking the ball away,” Peppers said. “That’s our main emphasis, getting takeaways and not giving it away. If we continue to do those things, we’re going to be all right.”

Speaking of turnovers: The Packers had zero giveaways during their final four games. That tied the 2014 team for its longest streak since 1933, and it’s also tied for the league’s fifth-longest streak since the 1970 merger. The Giants, however, forced nine turnovers in their last four games. In going 9-2 down the stretch, they led league with 15 interceptions.

“I think the one statistic that you can look at is their turnover opportunities is as high as we’ve seen this year,” McCarthy said. “I think that speaks volumes about their ability on defense.”

When winning the turnover battle, the Packers are 8-1. The Giants went 5-1, with their lone loss coming to Green Bay, when New York was plus-1.

FOUR-POINT STANCE

— Beckham will be a focal point for the Packers’ defense, and perhaps their special teams, too. Special teams coordinator Ron Zook thought Beckham might return punts. He’s done in periodically throughout his career and boasts an 8.0-yard average on 33 career runbacks.

“They’ve both been called back, but he’s taken two back for touchdowns” this season, Zook said.

Dwayne Harris usually handles those chores. In six seasons, he’s got three touchdowns and a career average of 9.8 yards per return, though just a 5.4 average this season.

Whoever’s returning the kicks might not get much of a chance against Green Bay’s Jacob Schum. Opponents have returned only 28.6 percent of his punts this season, the lowest rate in the league.

“I wasn’t aware of that,” Schum said. “I had a good idea that we’ve been pretty good about keeping it away from the returner, and we’ve been doing a great job of eliminating returns. It’s about keeping that same game plan. It’s my job to have great placement and my guys get down there and make some plays.”

— Overall, the Giants hold a slight edge in special teams, based on our final installment of the Packer Report Special Teams Rankings. New York finished 14th and Green Bay finished 17th. Both teams improved down the stretch. After Week 12, the Giants were 24th and the Packers were 22nd.

The Giants have a strong kicker-punter tandem in Robbie Gould and Brad Wing. Gould, the longtime Bears standout, was added at midseason and made all 10 field-goal attempts. His career success rate of 74.2 percent from 50-plus yards ranks second in NFL history. Wing, the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week twice in December, gives the Giants the league’s 10th-ranked punt unit. Harris hasn’t done much on punt returns but he’s averaged 24.2 yards per kickoff return to key a unit that ranks ninth in starting field position. Harris, the NFC’s Pro Bowler for special teams, added seven tackles.

“He’s a great returner,” Zook said. “He just plays at a very, very high level. I mean, he plays at an unbelievable level. The first time we played them, there was a point where he actually got knocked out of bounds and he got up and made the tackle about 30, 40 yards down field. He just plays really hard. As a returner, he runs very, very strong. He’s got great vision. He’s a one-cut guy that really goes. And you’ve got to wrap and up and get him on the ground. You’ve got to tackle him to the ground because you can’t just think you’re going to knock him down. He’s strong.”

Giants special teams coordinator Tom Quinn, meanwhile, is worried about Micah Hyde.

“I told the punt team he’s probably the kid that was never ‘it’ in tag because you can never get your hands on him,” Quinn said. “He’s really elusive and does a really good job of getting north and south. Once he sees it, he puts his foot in the ground and (goes).”

How important is special teams, by the way? Ten of the 12 playoff teams finished in the top 17.

— The Packers hopes of victory might hinge on their first quarter. During their six-game winning streak, they ranked fourth with a plus-22 scoring differential after the opening period. For the full season, the Packers ranked fourth with 58 first-possession points. Turning fast starts into victories has been a hallmark of McCarthy’s teams. During the streak, Green Bay trailed for a grand total of 7 minutes, 44 seconds. Exactly 6 of those minutes came last week at Detroit.

“It’s been a key on the run, for sure, that we scored first and gave our defense a lead,” Rodgers said. “The other key’s been situational football and finishing games. We talk a lot about playing a 60-minute game. We didn’t do that for a long time during the middle part of the season. If you look at really the first game we got things going, we had two great finishing drives against Philly. We had a great fourth quarter against Houston. We started fast against Seattle. We had a great finishing play to Jordy after having a great third quarter against Chicago. We started fast against Minnesota and finished strong. And we obviously did enough in the fourth quarter against Detroit. A fast start has definitely been a part of our success.”

— These quarterbacks are polar opposites from a mobility standpoint. Among quarterbacks who started at least eight games, Manning rushed for a league-low minus-9 yards. Rodgers, on the other hand, ranked third with 369 rushing yards. Rodgers led the Packers with 25 rushing first downs. He gained a first down on 37.3 percent of his rushes. Had he tallied enough carries to qualify among the league leaders, Rodgers would have ranked second in the league.

QUOTEWORTHY

Linebacker Clay Matthews, on the need to pressure Manning because of the state of the Packers' secondary: "Unfortuantely, it’s what we’ve been dealing with throughout this entire year is our DBs going down in staggering numbers. Its puts an extra emphasis on front four, five — whatever it is — to get after the quarterback. We’ve had some success in helping out our back end and they’ve at times bailed us out. Now that it’s the playoffs, I think it’s going to be turned up even more so, especially if you look at the guys on the front line that we have. Julius has been doing it for a while, Datone, Nick Perry — you’ve got a lot of No. 1s who’ve been in this situation before and understand what it’s going to take to win this game. We expect to have a lot of that burden put on our shoulders."

Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.


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