Tonight's NFC Championship Game is as close as this generation may ever get to the days of Lombardi Era.
It will be freezing.
It will be hard-hitting.
It is a game between two of the oldest, most tradition-rich franchises in professional football history.
Even die-hard Chicago Bears fans can appreciate this game at Lambeau Field. No question, the NFC Championship is the main event this weekend (with respect to San Diego's Igor Olshansky, who may soon be Anthony Smith-isized). Appreciate it football fans. The last time the Pack and G-Men clashed in the playoffs was in 1961 for the NFL Championship. This type of game only comes around every 46 years.
Here are some pre-game thoughts:
An Unlikely Home
Green Bay probably would not be in Sunday's NFC Championship if the typically tentative Ted Thompson wasn't abnormally aggressive one year and seven months ago.
Brett Favre said the team needed to make a Reggie White-type of signing.
More than one month into free agency, LaVar Arrington sat on an ESPN throne with seemingly all leverage in the free agent market. He had just visited the Packers, which were fresh off of a 4-12 season. With plenty of cap space to accommodate one of the market's last remaining big-splash signings, Thompson was sure to listen to Favre and ink Arrington.
Yet behind closed doors a peculiar attraction was brewing. The Packers were constantly calling cornerback Charles Woodson. The aging ex-Heisman winner turned the other cheek as if to say, "I can't hear you…."
Yet, four days after Arrington signed a seven-year, $49 million contract with the New York Giants, the Packers secured Woodson to the tune of $52 million over seven years. It was encouraging to see Thompson finally pull out the checkbook for a major free agent signing, but the choice seemed like a careless reach at the time. After all, Green Bay's pass defense was the one highlight from a forgettable '05 season. The unit ranked No. 1 in the NFL against the pass and Woodson was ‘past his prime.' Injuries sidelined the Oakland Raider for 22 games the previous four seasons.
But while Arrington's career fell apart after six games with the Giants, Woodson instantly became a team cornerstone ... for a team he wanted no business being on.
"I didn't want to come here, really, is what it boils down," Woodson said at a press conference Wednesday. "But it seems like Green Bay is the only team that came knocking."
A blunt Woodson said that he hoped to wind up in Jacksonville or Tampa Bay. Yet when the Jaguars opted for Brian Williams and the Buccaneers showed no interest, Green Bay became the destination by default.
"The talk is always this is no place for a black man and that's just how it was," Woodson said. "And you get all those reports from people who've played here and those were the thoughts going through my mind when Green Bay kept calling, and like I said, I got here and the relationship between me, coaching staff, players here and community-wise just continued to get better while I've been here."
Consider the frosty-turned-friendly relationship mutually beneficial.
Last season, Woodson's eight interceptions were two shy of a team record and he played all 16 games with a nagging shoulder injury. Four wins became eight wins. This season, Woodson single-handedly won one game for the Packers (fumble recovery touchdown against Washington), while closing the book on another (pick six at Kansas City), while recording 64 tackles, 9 PD and 4 INT in 14 games with foot and knee ailments. Eight wins became 13.
"Injury-prone" is not necessarily synonymous with "career decline."
"I had the injuries and people associated the injuries with playing bad I guess, so the talk coming out of Oakland was, ‘This guy's lost a step. He can't play anymore, injury prone,' which I did have the injuries, but if anybody wants to go back and look at any film of me playing at Oakland, I've always played the way I'm playing now."
As he prepares for a match-up with fellow Michigan-alum Amani Toomer, Woodson has one final injury bug to crush. The toe injury he suffered on a 34-yard punt return Thanksgiving Day at Detroit is still lingering. The injury report may state that Woodson has a "knee" injury but his chronic toe pain is the real issue. As a doctor on ESPN's First Take said Thursday, the team will probably just numb Woodson's foot and delay the healing process.
Kind of funny. It's not like any players will feel their feet anyway at a frigid Lambeau Field.
War on the Edges
Maybe the biggest reason the Giants have glided through their 10-6 season mostly unnoticed is that the team lacks an explicit identity. As the Good Eli/Bad Eli raged, running backs swapped spots in the backfield and Tom Coughlin somehow managed to go 3-5 at home and 7-1 on the road, the Giants' M.O. was never clear.
Following two dominating playoff performances, here is one guess: Defensive ends Michael Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck sure can seem annoying with their "Ballin'" jump shot celebration. But they're equally as productive.
In the regular season the trio combined for 174 tackles, 32 sacks and 24 tackles for loss. For comparison, Green Bay's top three ends, Aaron Kampman, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and Cullen Jenkins, amassed 134, 22.5 and 8.5. The Giants' defensive end trio's play-to-play bench-pressing of offensive tackles instantly shrank the pocket for Jeff Garcia and Tony Romo, disrupting two timing-based offenses.
With under one minute remaining in the first quarter and the game still deadlocked at zero, a Jeff Feagles punt pinned the Pack at its own five-yard line. On the ensuing possession, Osi Umenyiora rushed inside on a twist move and Daryn Colledge picked him up. Tauscher easily washed Strahan to the outside right, opening up a huge pocket. Favre stepped into it and lobbed a 30-yard pass up the right sideline to Ruvell Martin. It was overthrown, yet Corey Webster was flagged for pass interference. The tick-tack penalty wasn't luck. Green Bay's offensive line allowed it to happen.
Case No. 2. Trailing 10-7 early in the third quarter, Green Bay faced a third-and-5 in New York territory. In the shotgun, Favre was given a full five seconds to look left, look center and fire a pass right to James Jones, who ran a drag route horizontally across the field. The hookup put Green Bay in N.Y. territory, where Favre hit Bubba Franks for a touchdown. Jones' key reception sparked a 28-3 run and it started up front with Clifton and Tauscher stuffing the Giants' dangerous pass rush.
For the eighth straight season, Tauscher and Clifton locked down the outside edges. As Favre has gotten older and less willing to stray from the pocket, Clifton and Tauscher have become his best friends on the field. This past season Favre was only sacked 15 times – less than once per game. This total is the second-lowest of Favre's 16 years as the team's starting signal-caller.
In the NFC title game, the Giants may be reluctant to blitz Favre with linebackers after the quarterback's September field day. Therefore, Clifton, Tauscher and Franks (a key third lineman) must keep the Giants' basic four-man pass rush in check to allow Favre ample time to dissect a defense with seven dropped in coverage.
On Oct. 5, 1998, the Packers lost it. Tonight they can get it back.
Ever since Randall Cunningham dropped 442 yards worth of grenades in a 37-24 nightmarish blowout Minnesota win at Lambeau Field, which ended the Packers' 25-game winning streak at home, the Packers haven't been the same on the tundra. In 2002, Michael Vick and Atlanta became the first team ever to defeat the Packers at Lambeau in the playoffs. Three years later, the Vikings repeated this feat by picking off Favre four times in an embarrassing 31-17 Packer loss. Overall, from that rainy '98 loss up to the '07 season, Green Bay went a mediocre 46-24 at Lambeau Field, including a 6-10 mark in '05 and '06.
Immediately after taking over, Mike McCarthy said that the team needed to make Lambeau a place teams feared once again. After being two James Jones fumbles away from a perfect home mark in the regular season, McCarthy can complete his mission with a win over the Giants.
The Packers haven't hosted a championship game in 11 years. Make no mistake about it. A win over the Giants revives the ghosts of Packer legends…and instills an era of new ones.
This is why Cheeseheads wait 40-plus years for season tickets. Today will create a new showcase in the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame.
Tyler Dunne is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.