This is the game the Giants wanted.
Giants at the Green Bay Packers, Sunday in an NFC Divisional Playoff Game in Lambeau Field. But they didn't want it because the Packers are the defending Super Bowl champions. Or because they had an NFL-best 15-1 record this season. The Giants didn't want it because they're obsessed with avenging the last-play, 34-31 loss Green Bay stuck on them in MetLife Stadium on Dec. 4. And they certainly didn't want it so they could play another cold-weather postseason game in historic Lambeau Field.
No, the Giants wanted this most of all because playing the game means their season is still very much alive and they are one of the eight teams still in the running to win the Super Bowl.
A rematch? Sure, the Giants will take it, but largely because of the big picture and not the specific opponent.
"I think we did (want to face the Packers again), but more than anything we just wanted the opportunity to keep playing, regardless of who we were going to face," defensive end Justin Tuck said today. "It just happens to be the Green Bay Packers and we're looking forward to that, but we don't care who it is at this point. To be the best, you have to beat the best and we'll have that opportunity on Sunday."
"I don't think about it like that," quarterback Eli Manning said of getting another shot at a team that beat the Giants. "I think, 'Hey, we have a great shot.' We're playing in the playoffs. We're playing a good team and just have fun with that opportunity and go out there and play our best football."
The Giants played arguably their finest football of the season yesterday, when they grounded the Atlanta Falcons, 24-2, in a wild card game. The defense was dominant, surrendering only 247 yards and not letting the Falcons inside the 20-yard line until the game's final 90 seconds – and then stopping them cold on four straight downs.
Offensively, Manning threw three touchdown passes – two to Hakeem Nicks and another to Mario Manningham – and the Giants churned out a season-high 172 yards on the ground, including 92 by Brandon Jacobs.
The Giants have won their last three games, beating the Jets, Dallas and Atlanta with their season on the line. That followed a stretch in which they lost five of six games. So what, exactly, has happened?
"Offensively," Manning said, "I think just having all of our weapons back and getting the run game going, just being confident and sticking with what we know and what works."
The defense is playing as well as it has all season.
"I think we are playing better," Coach Tom Coughlin said. "We are playing tighter coverage. I think the guys are much more mindful and prideful, and they are playing more physically if you noticed how the corners played yesterday. (Antrel) Rolle was all over the place, that was two games in a row and he has had a bunch of tackles and been around. I thought he may be involved in the opportunities to intercept the ball but that didn't happen. (Deon) Grant has made a strong contribution and Kenny Phillips has got them all lined up.
"I just think that we also have done a better job underneath and that was an issue for us in terms of pattern reads, identification, recognition of who is where and doing a better job with a lot of the check downs. There were a couple yesterday that were open, but by in large, we have done a better job of that. We are just playing better coverage and we are playing the rush better, let's put it that way."
Playing the Packers presents a challenge like few others in the NFL. This is a team that has won 21 of its last 22 games, a streak that began with a 45-17 rout of the Giants in Lambeau on Dec. 26, 2010. Green Bay scored an NFL-high 560 points this season, including at least 24 points in every game but its only loss, 19-14 at Kansas City on Dec. 18. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the favorite to win the NFL Most Valuable Player Award, threw 45 touchdown passes and only six interceptions – and he was inactive for the season finale vs. Detroit.
The Packers gained 449 yards, including 360 through the air, and had 29 first downs when they improved to 12-0 with their victory over the Giants last month. Rodgers threw four touchdown passes, including two to Donald Driver.
The only lead the Giants owned was 7-0. But they rallied from a 28-17 deficit in the third quarter to tie the game.
"It certainly gives us confidence in the fact that we went back and forth with them," Coughlin said. "It wasn't, by any means, a perfect game. They had the ball at the end of the game, for example, and it was a high scoring affair. From the standpoint of having played against the world champions at home and done such a reasonable job, but we all know what the challenges are going forward as well."
The Giants tied the game on Manning's two-yard touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks and D.J. Ware's two-point conversion with 58 seconds remaining. But that was more than enough time for Rodgers, who threw passes of 24 yards to Jermichael Finley, 27 yards to Jordy Nelson and 18 yards to Greg Jennings to set up Crosby's game-winning field goal.
"We blew an opportunity," defensive tackle Chris Canty said. "We had our chances throughout that football game and we didn't take advantage of them. As close as the game was, it was still a loss. You don't take any silver lining or moral victories from that. It's the NFL. You're judged on wins and losses. This is a high-performance business. We're going to look at that tape as well and see the things they did that gave us some trouble and we're going to try to make some adjustments and try to improve our football game."
"We lost the game," safety Antrel Rolle said. "Green Bay is an outstanding opponent and we lost the game. There are no moral victories in that loss but I think, speaking for myself, I wanted to see those guys again and our wish is being granted this Sunday."
They will enter the rematch with a defense that is presumably stronger. Osi Umenyiora, who has three sacks in the last two games, didn't play against the Packers after suffering a sprained ankle the previous week in New Orleans. Chase Blackburn, now the starting middle linebacker, was signed four days before that game (and had the only interception of a Rodgers pass). Weakside linebacker Michael Boley was not at full strength after missing the previous 2½ games with a hamstring injury.
"Obviously, coming back from injury, I wasn't all the way back healthy yet," Boley said. "But I played a little bit. The little bit I did play I didn't look like I was back for that week."
With a full squad against Atlanta, the defense allowed 31 fewer yards than it had in any game this season (Philadelphia had 278 on Nov. 20).
"I think we're executing at a high level," defensive lineman Dave Tollefson said. "The confidence is huge. It's a game of confidence. We're just having a good time. We're enjoying our time together as a defense, as a team, and just having fun."
Now they face the biggest challenge of the season, facing the defending champions and the top seed on their home field. The last time the Giants were in this position, they pulled off one of the greatest victories in franchise history, beating the Packers, 23-20, in overtime in the 2007 NFC Championship Game. Now they get another chance to make history.
"It's exciting," Tuck said. "We get the opportunity to play another week. We still have every goal right within our grasp that we came into the season with. It's not going to get any easier. We know that the Packers are the number one seed for a reason - 15-1, playing in Lambeau Field. Those guys are pretty good. We have our hands full. I feel as though we'll be ready for the task."
"I don't think there's a question who the best team in the NFL is - it's Green Bay, they're 15-1," Tollefson said. "It's just another step in the right direction we want to head. Another big challenge, another mountain to climb, and I can't wait. I wish Sunday was tomorrow.
*Coughlin said, "We are giving everybody a game ball because of the historic significance of the game." The victory over Atlanta was the first postseason game played in MetLife Stadium.
*Cornerback Aaron Ross and Ware were undergoing tests to determine if they suffered concussions in the game yesterday.
"(We) are going through the process in regard to concussions," Coughlin said. "They actually felt pretty good at the conclusion of the game when we did see them in the locker room and I hope that pans out going throughout the protocol for clearance to practice this week."
*If Ross can't play, first-round draft choice Prince Amukamara would take his place.
"He has gotten better each week and he did a nice job on special teams when he went out to defend the gunners," Coughlin said. "Atlanta had two outstanding gunners and those guys were good. He did a good job out there so he has improved in that regard and of course and he got a lot of playing time after Aaron was hurt. He is gaining each week and that is exactly what he needs. I think it did a good job with open field transition yesterday turning his hips and getting himself in position. He is physical, he will hit you, so he is coming."
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