Six straight wins in the bag, four more will send the Lombardi Trophy home with the Green Bay Packers. What must they do to advance past the New York Giants in the wild-card round?
A new season awaits. The past month-and-a-half was all about digging themselves out of a 4-6 sized hole to make it into the playoff dance. Mission accomplished, but now the real work begins. It’s win-or-go-home the rest of the way.
Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning combine for three Super Bowl MVPs, although the two have followed different paths in 2016. Rodgers is in contention for a third league MVP award, after leading the NFL with 40 touchdown passes with just seven interceptions. He’s been the heartbeat of the Packers’ dramatic turnaround.
Manning surpassed the 4,000-yard mark for the sixth time of his career, but with just 26 touchdowns to 16 interceptions and a number of errant throws, it can be considered a disappointing year. None of that will matter, though, if Manning guides his team to the promised land for a third time.
What must the Packers do to stop Manning making it 3-0 at Lambeau in the postseason?
Oct 9, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers wide receiver Davante Adams (17) scores a touchdown during the second quarter against the New York Giants at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
The Giants are masters of winning close games. Of their 11 victories, eight were settled by one score. Their margin of victory averaged at 5.8 points. For perspective, the Packers’ 10 wins were by an average of 10.7 points. New York only won by a double-digit margin twice—a 27-13 win at Cleveland and a 17-6 victory over Detroit.
What does this mean? The Giants want this game to be close and aren’t built to play catchup. If the Packers can get up by a couple of scores early, the game may drift away from New York. A shootout wouldn’t favor the visitors, an offense that has failed to score 30 points in a game all year.
Starting fast has been a theme of the Packers’ six-game winning stretch. Green Bay took a 7-0 lead in all six wins, and only trailed at halftime once. In contrast, the Packers’ opponents scored first in each of their defeats in a four-game skid, and they only led at halftime once.
The past 10 weeks highlights the importance of starting fast. The Giants’ biggest comeback victory this year was overturning 10 points. Early points could quickly take the game away from them.
Oct 9, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell (51) sacks New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) during the first half at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Rick Wood/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY Sports
Pressure Eli Manning
Sacked only 21 times all season, Eli Manning’s protection has been strong. Only two teams have sacked him three times in a game, one of them the Packers in Week 5.
Given the deficiencies in the secondary, winning up front must be the formula from here on out. Strong play against the run and rushing the passer is key to reduce the pressure in coverage. If the Packers can’t win with four-man rushes, Dom Capers may get blitz-happy, and that’s risky business when Odell Beckham Jr. is lined up opposite you.
Tied with Tennessee on 40 sacks, good for sixth in the NFL, the Packers have found success getting after opposing quarterbacks. Nick Perry leads the way with 11 of those sacks, the fifth-year man still producing even with a giant club on his broken hand.
Perry, along with Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews, need to provide consistent pressure up front. This is the playoffs, and potentially Peppers’ final stretch in the NFL. The plan was to keep him fresh this year. Now is the time to get the 36-year-old involved more heavily.
If the Packers can provide consistent pressure without the need to blitz frequently, they’ll be able to keep New York’s offense at arm’s length.
Oct 9, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (13) misses a pass during the second quarter against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Slow down Odell Beckham
Green Bay’s decimated secondary has a date with Odell Beckham. It’s almost unfair. If Beckham takes over this game, it’ll be a third postseason win at Lambeau Field for Eli Manning. Beckham is Dom Capers’ worst nightmare, and a player his defense must slow down.
As I wrote earlier in the week, the Packers achieved this in Week 5, largely by dropping two safeties into coverage and shading one Beckham’s way. This invites the run, something New York has struggled with all season. It would be no surprise to see similar tactics deployed on Sunday.
Capers’ defense must slow the Giants’ superstar receiver, and force the likes of Sterling Shepard and Victor Cruz to consistently win one-on-one.
Stopping Beckham completely is near impossible, but he can’t be allowed to take the top off Green Bay’s defense as he so often does. There’s only one winner in a 60-yard footrace to the end zone. Good tackling and extra coverage Beckham’s way are necessary to prevent him adding big chunks of yardage after the catch.