The Giants' meeting with the Green Bay Packers Sunday in MetLife Stadium encompasses every meaning of the phrase, "big game."
In the grand scheme, it is the NFL's showcase Sunday night game, a nationally-televised contest featuring two franchises that have won four Super Bowls apiece and currently lead their respective divisions with a combined 13-7 record. Contrast that with, say, the Carolina-Philadelphia Monday night game, pitting two last-place teams that have never won a Super Bowl and limp into the game at a combined 5-15.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this is the 12th game since 1990 matching the previous two Super Bowl winners. The most recent champion won nine of the 11 games, including the last seven, a trend the Giants hope to continue.
"This is a huge game," said coach Tom Coughlin. "It's a huge game for them. It's a huge game for us. … Why wouldn't we be excited about playing? Look at the time of the year. After Thanksgiving, you better be playing your best football or on your way toward playing your best football if you're going to be representative."
"I think you can expect a good game," said Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers. "They're a really good football team, they're first in the division, we're tied for the division lead, and so, you have a couple of division leaders squaring off. I think that's pretty exciting, plus the last two teams to win Super Bowls."
Coughlin takes a much narrower perspective when he speaks of the game's importance. The Giants carry a two-game losing streak into the game. After winning four in a row, the Giants played far below their capabilities in losses to Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The loss to the Bengals was followed by their annual bye, so the Giants have been dwelling on that for two weeks. They haven't thrown a touchdown pass in three games, the defense is giving up far too many big plays and the coverage teams, so strong earlier in the year, have surrendered several long runbacks.
"We've played crappy football over the last couple of weeks," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "We really would like to swing this momentum back in our favor. We'd really like to come out of this football game feeling very confident about where we are as a football team heading into the rest of this schedule. It's just a great opponent, a great measuring stick for our football team, to see exactly where we are."
"Huge game," said the Giants' other veteran defense end, Osi Umenyiora. "A lot at stake and I'm anxious to see how we come out and play because I feel like we need to respond to the key games that we've lost and we also need to prove that we are still world champions and play like it at some point. Hopefully, this will be the game."
The Giants are 6-4 and hold a 1.5-game lead in the NFC East over Dallas and Washington. Because the Redskins defeated the Cowboys yesterday, the Giants will remain atop the division no matter what happens Sunday night. But their next game is a Monday night affair against the suddenly-hot Redskins in Washington. A victory Sunday can give them some much-needed breathing room.
"We're well aware of what happened yesterday; quite frankly, it doesn't make it any easier," Coughlin said. "Here we go. Take care of your own business, that's what I learned a long, long time ago. Take care of your own business."
Doing that against the Packers is quite a challenge. The Packers were 15-1 in the 2011 regular season, including a last-second 38-35 victory here over the Giants. But the Giants routed Green Bay in Lambeau Field in an NFC Divisional Playoff Game, 37-20.
This season, the Packers were 2-3 after five games, but have rallied to win their last five games, tying them with Denver and New England for the league's longest active winning streaks. They've averaged 30.2 points per game in those five victories. Green Bay has its flaws – Rodgers has been sacked an NFL-high 32 times – but this is a high-powered, confident team with some of the league's very best players at several positions. Despite having to frequently pick himself off the ground, Rodgers has thrown 27 touchdown passes and only six interceptions and has a league-best 107.3 passer rating.
Defensively, the Packers are ranked 12th in the NFL after finishing the 2011 season 32nd and last.
"I think they're aggressive in their approach," quarterback Eli Manning said. "Some of their defenses that they play give guys the ability to be aggressive, to read things, jump some routes and they do a good job of getting interceptions. It also gives them opportunities to get some throws down the field. If you can protect, have time to let routes develop, there are some possibilities to get the ball down the field. They're also good at getting to the quarterback and they get a lot of sacks. That pressure can cause the quarterback to throw the ball before he wants to and with the aggressive play of the secondary, they get some turnovers."
The Giants know what awaits them when the Packers arrive. The mystery is will they will return to the high level of play they exhibited in October or will their recent struggles continue post-Thanksgiving.
"I really think it's a big game for us," safety Kenny Phillips said. "We definitely want to keep the advantage over both teams (the Cowboys and Redskin), because Washington is right behind us also now, and we also play them next week. To win this game and hopefully win the game next week would put us where we want to be."
"It's a tremendous opportunity for us and it's got a familiar feel to it for our football team," defensive tackle Chris Canty said. "I think the bye week came at a great time for us to refresh, but it only matters if we take advantage of the opportunity. Coach had a quote today that said, 'Somebody will take the opportunities that you miss.' And so we have to understand that we've got to take advantage of our opportunities at this time. It's six weeks. We understand that it's a very short time. We're still in a good position to achieve what we want to achieve and set out to do at the start the season. So we have to keep that in the forefront of our minds. We've still got it all out in front of us, but we have to concentrate and buckle down and just find a way to get one win this coming Sunday."
*Wide receiver Domenik Hixon (ankle) and linebacker Jacquian Williams (knee) have been declared out of the game.
Phillips (knee) and linebacker Keith Rivers (calf/knee) practiced on a limited basis and are questionable. Phillips is on track to return after missing the last six games; he was hurt at Philadelphia on September 30.
"I think I could play an entire game if the coaches allow me to," Phillips said. "I'm way more confident than I was when we played Pittsburgh (three weeks ago) just because I was going through those practices back then and I was still kind of sore. (But) this week, I'm not having that problem. I'm running around, I'm participating fully in practice, not taking any plays off. I feel pretty good. I like my chances."
"I am (optimistic), but we'll see," Coughlin said. "Each day we've been a little better and he's done a little better and a little more on the practice field. Hopefully, he'll feel like he can make a strong contribution."
The Giants listed five players as probable: center David Baas (ankle/elbow), guard Chris Snee (ankle) and safety Tyler Sash (ankle), who all practiced fully, and running back Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) and defensive tackle Linval Joseph (knee), who were both limited.
*The Giants are 17-22-1 on Sunday night, including a 19-17 loss in Philadelphia on September 30. They are 8-11 at home.
*The Giants have won their last four post-bye games and are 5-3 under Coughlin following a regular-season bye.
*The Giants trail in the regular-season series with Green Bay, 26-22-2, and in the postseason series, 4-3. The Giants have lost their last four home games against the Packers, in 1998, 2001, 2007 and last season. The Giants' most recent home victory over Green Bay was a 27-7 decision on Nov. 8, 1992.