GREEN BAY, Wis. — The week started with a guarantee. It soon added tragedy. With the New York Giants feeling plenty confident and the Green Bay Packers battling mixed emotions, the two teams will decide Sunday afternoon (3:30 on FOX) which will advance to the NFC Championship Game.
The Giants will enter Lambeau Field with more than enough substance to back up their week-long string of bold statements after beating the Atlanta Falcons, 24-2, in the first round of the playoffs. However, there is a big difference between the Falcons — who beat only two teams with a winning record all season — and the 15-1 defending Super Bowl champion Packers. While Atlanta’s offense was unable to score any points against New York, Green Bay led the NFL in scoring during the regular season.
It was only six weeks ago that the Packers beat the Giants, 38-35, in New York. Even the 38 points scored that day by Green Bay was not among the Packers’ six highest-scoring games of their regular season. But the Giants proved in that game they have the key element to be able to pull off an upset: an elite-level quarterback in Eli Manning. Add in the resurgence of a power running game that has helped New York win four of five games since, and the Packers are left to list home-field advantage as the main reason things might be different for their defense this time around.
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“You expect to play your best defense at home,” Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said this week. “You’re on your own turf. You have the crowd behind you. It’s really part of the home-field advantage. I anticipate our players on defense will play very well.”
New York’s defense was as suspect this year as the Packers’. In the regular season, the Giants finished 29th in the NFL against the pass and 25th in points allowed. They gave up 49 points to the dangerous New Orleans Saints in Week 12 and 36 points to the far-less-dangerous Seattle Seahawks in Week 5. But in New York’s last three games, the defense stiffened. Needing back-to-back victories to close out the regular season and win the NFC East, the Giants allowed only 14 points in consecutive weeks before embarrassing the Falcons.
That led star defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul to guarantee a win over the Packers. His comments were largely ignored in Green Bay’s locker room, though wide receiver Greg Jennings did speak up a little bit.
“I couldn’t care less about them guaranteeing a win,” Jennings said. “It’s not about guaranteeing (a win). We guarantee that we’re going to go out there and do everything we can to prevent them from getting a win. How about that?”
The Packers were understandably muted in responding to the Giants’ jabs during an emotional week in Green Bay. On Monday, the team was informed that the son of offensive coordinator Joe Philbin had died when he fell through the ice of a local river. Philbin, who normally runs offensive meetings and sets much of the game plan, has not been with the team this week and is not expected to coach Sunday. Many players attended funeral services for Philbin’s son on Friday.
“I think whenever you have tragedies like this, I think it only strengthens us as a team,” said Packers offensive lineman T.J. Lang, whose father died the week prior. “That’s my honest opinion. I don’t know if that will make us play any better on Sunday, but it definitely helps. It gives us something extra to play for. I think it will make us stronger.”
And stronger, especially on offense, could be tough for even a peaking Giants team to handle. Though the Giants’ defense is feeling good about its recent accomplishments, it hasn’t faced a quarterback nearly as good as the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers since, well, it last faced Rodgers six weeks ago. In that game, Rodgers threw for 369 yards and four touchdowns. After the Giants tied the score late, Rodgers marched Green Bay’s offense 68 yard on five plays in 58 seconds to set up a game-winning field-goal.
“We left too much time on the clock,” New York coach Tom Coughlin said this week when asked about that game. “But we played hard, we did a lot of good things. We did not finish the game the way we wanted to finish it, but we certainly felt like we were very, very competitive.”
The Giants will have to be more than just competitive to win at Lambeau Field, where the Packers went undefeated this season and have not lost since Oct. 17, 2010. Green Bay enters the game as healthy as it has been all season and will have starting tackled Chad Clifton and Bryan Bulaga, running back James Starks and top receiver Greg Jennings back from injuries on the offensive side of the ball. After an uneven week of preparation, the Packers just want to get back on the field.
“Just to have everybody back is a good thing,” Starks said. “We should be healthy now. Everybody’s rolling in practice and everything’s clicking. Everybody’s focused. Everybody’s back. We’re ready to roll.”