The Giants' best defense against the Green Bay Packers might be a strong offense.
The strength of the Packers' offense is not in dispute. Green Bay scored 560 points this season, the second-highest total in NFL history. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw 45 touchdown passes, which likely would have been the league-leading total had he not sat out the season finale because the Packers had already clinched the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. Rodgers threw for four of those touchdowns in a 38-31 victory over the Giants on Dec. 4 – the same number of scoring throws he had against the Giants in Lambeau Field a year earlier.
If Rodgers deals another full house when the teams meet Sunday in an NFC Divisional Playoff Game in Lambeau Field, the Giants' chances of coming up with a winning hand will be that much more difficult.
The only time Rodgers is guaranteed not to throw a touchdown pass is when the ball is not in his right hand. That will occur only when the Giants have it. So it's incumbent on the Giants to play keep-away and hold the ball as long as possible on each offensive possession.
"That's an objective that we always have and the key is how do you get that done? That's the thing," offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said today. "The conventional wisdom, to be honest, was quite superficial and probably doesn't hold much water, you run the ball. What you have to do is hold onto the ball and the only way you hold onto the ball, whether you're running or passing, is to get first downs. That's the key and that's what you have to do.
"But it's something that is always in the back of our minds. How do we win the game? You have to put up more points than the other team. The obvious way is you outscore them. Do you outscore them in a shootout or do you outscore them by trying to keep the ball away from them and minimizing their output? I think you're certainly conscious of it. Whether or not you can get it done is another matter."
"If we can keep him off the field and the fewer opportunities they have on offense, the better our chance of winning," said running back Brandon Jacobs.
The formula worked last week. The Atlanta Falcons arrived here for an NFC Wild Card Game with an offense that was seventh in the NFL in scoring and 10th in yards gained. But that offense failed to score a point in the Giants' 24-2 victory in part because it seldom had the ball. The Giants rushed for a season–high 172 yards, passed for another 270 and three touchdowns and owned the ball for 34:34.
"You always love the fact that you can do everything," Gilbride said. "What I always look at is what are people doing to us defensively. Where are they schematically most vulnerable? And then you try to go after that area. Now when you go after that area, whether it's throw or pass and you're not having success, what do you do next?
"(The Falcons) were playing us in a certain way that gave us an opportunity to get some runs going. To be quite frank with you, some of the things we thought we could get done early on in the game we couldn't. I realized that fairly quickly and made some adjustments. I thought when we gave those opportunities to the backs after that they made some big plays for us and that really kind of sparked us and got us going."
Although Gilbride is keeping all options open, logic indicates the Giants will try to keep the ball away from Rodgers and Co. with a heavy dose of the run game.
"If we can establish the run game, that makes everything a lot easier," said quarterback Eli Manning, who has thrived this year whether or not he's getting help from the rushing attack. "You get in better down-and-distance (situations), you start to dominate the line of scrimmage, it slows down the pass rush. It does all of those things.
"The last time we played them they liked to play a lot of two-high safeties. It's tough to throw against that look. If you can bring their safeties down, then we can get some better looks to throw it. We're going to try to continue to establish the run game. That's when our offense is at our best – when we have that good balance, mix of run and pass."
The Giants' ground game is at its best when Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw are both churning out yards. Because of injuries, changes on the offensive line or other unexplained factors, that didn't often occur this season. Indeed, the Giants finished last in the NFL with an average of 89.2 rushing yards per game.
But against Atlanta, the ground game functioned about as well as Gilbride could have hoped. Each back had 14 carries. Jacobs ran for 92 yards, including a career-playoff best 34-yarder. Bradshaw added 63 yards, including a postseason-long 30-yard run.
The backs hope for a similar workload – and similar production – Sunday in Green Bay.
"We've got a lot of different situations and we've got different running backs that do different things and that's the only thing that can stop me from getting as many carries as I would like," Jacobs said. "Just the way the game goes. No one plans for me not to get this or to get that and if the game could go our way, we both will have a lot of carries."
"I think it's great to have both Brandon and Ahmad healthy and playing the way they are," tackle David Diehl said. "But I think it's just a collective determination (that enables the run game to succeed). We understand how important it is, especially when you're playing up against good football teams with dynamic offenses who can control the time of possession and can kill the clock. That's going to be a crucial point to this game. It's no surprise how this game is going to be won by the offensive and defensive lines by either side and doing that is controlling the time of possession, controlling the line of scrimmage, keeping yourself in third-and-manageable downs instead of third-and-long situations. I think that's something we put on our back and said. 'Hey, if we want to be successful, if we want to continue to keep this thing going, we need to get the run game going.' I think all of us said, 'It doesn't matter if there are eight guys in the box, nine guys in the box, we are going to find a way to get it done.'"
The Giants rushed for exactly 100 yards in their Dec. 4 meeting with Green Bay. Jacobs had 59 of those yards, including a one-yard touchdown. The Giants did not have a run longer than 14 yards.
The offense was missing two starters in that game in center David Baas and wide receiver Mario Manningham. The Packers were missing both of their inside linebackers, A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop, the team's leading tackler this season. All four players are expected to be in uniform on Sunday.
Jacobs opened a window into the Giants' determined mindset when he was asked how this game would be different with Hawk and Bishop in the lineup.
"I have no idea how different it's going to be - I don't care either way," he said. "I don't care who's in there. That's just the way I feel and I hope everybody else on our football team feels the same way. I don't care who's back, whose playing, it doesn't bother me one bit.
"They've got a good defense, we played them already. There are not going to be any secrets to what they want to do. They've got some heavy guys in there. They've got a good team overall. It's going to be a dog fight, but a dog fight I think we can win."
*Bradshaw and linebacker Mark Herzlich (ankle) were the only Giants not to practice.
"We expect him to practice tomorrow like usual," Coach Tom Coughlin said of Bradshaw. "He has struggled a little bit with the back, but hopefully tomorrow will be a better day."
Running back D.J. Ware (concussion), who did not practice yesterday, worked today. Two additions to the injury report practiced on a limited basis: cornerback Corey Webster (hamstring) and safety Deon Grant (quad).
"Just so we don't get any issues," Coughlin said of Webster and Grant. "We did the same thing last week with Webster. Grant, you saw him (injure his quad) in the game, so we thought we'd be careful of that and not have any problems going forward. Just limited."
Defensive end Osi Umenyiora (ankle/knee) and cornerback Aaron Ross (concussion) were also limited.
Coughlin said he was pleased with practice today.
"It was good energy, real good energy," he said. "Still some stuff to clean up but good energy. Guys were flying around and did a nice job all the way through."
*No Packers player missed practice. Rookie wide receiver Randall Cobb (groin) and linebacker Robert Francois (hamstring) were limited.
*The Giants are 4-6 in the divisional round of the playoffs since the 1970 merger, including 1-4 on the road. They last played – and won – as visitors on Jan. 13, 2008, when they defeated Dallas, 21-17, on their way to Super Bowl XLII.
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