The 7-3* Green Bay Packers take on the 6-4 New York Giants Sunday night in New York.
This game was circled as a showdown when the schedule for this season first came out. I expected it to be a game between Division leaders. It is. I expected it to be important for both teams. It is. What I didn’t expect was to be so flummoxed about which team will win.
Allow me to explain.
The New York Football Giants are a superb football team. They’ve had their way with the Packers in the playoffs, while the Packers have found ways to beat them in the regular season. Hopefully that doesn’t happen exactly that way again this year, but that’s a different piece for sometime in January.
The Green Bay Packers are an equally superb football team. They have weathered their storm of injuries remarkably well. I can’t think of a single team in the NFL that could possibly absorb the kind of injury issues that the Packers have absorbed this year and continue to be expected to win, then go out and win. After a rocky start they’re playing better, more consistent ball. Even after all the injuries.
Statistically the teams are so close offensively that it’s meaningless to try and pick the better team. Twenty yards per game separate the two teams in average total yards, passing, and rushing. Their points per game are less than a full point apart. Green Bay holds a 5 percentage point edge in third down conversions and about 11 minutes more time of possession … for the season!
Defensively the situation is much the same. The Packers give up 28 fewer average yards per game. None of the other per-game defensive averages differ by more than 15 yards. Average points per game allowed? Nothing to hang your hat on there; there is less than a full point difference. Third down conversion percentage allowed? They differ by less than 3 percentage points, but the Packers have the edge.
Without meaningful differences between the teams statistically, I could point at the injuries. But so far, the Packers have not been able to point at any of the players who have replaced injured starters and find a glaring hole. Sure, it would be great to have Bulaga, Jennings, Woodson, Shields, and Matthews back.
But Lang, Cobb, Hayward/House/Jennings and Moses/Zombo/Walden have done more than serviceable work as their replacements. I don’t include the players on IR in the discussion simply because they can’t come back at all, so their availability is moot. But it sure would be nice to have Benson back, too!
The Giants injury list is nowhere as long as the Packers list. QB Eli Manning has complained about “fatigue” in his throwing arm, but the G Men are coming off their bye and any fatigue might well be more than just fatigue if it affects Manning’s performance in this game. Otherwise the Giants injury picture is inconsequential.
Quarterback matchup? Eli Manning is up against reigning league MVP Aaron Rodgers. Both quarterbacks are examples of the best at their position and Manning does have two Super Bowl wins.
I’ll still pick Rodgers for three reasons. He’s better at escaping the pass rush and improvising while on the move, he’s leading the league (again) in passer rating, and he’s thrown 27 touchdowns against 6 picks.
Manning doesn’t move as well, ranks 22nd in passer rating, and he’s thrown 12 touchdowns against 11 picks.
Manning has developed a reputation as a comeback quarterback, but if the Packers can take advantage of his tendency to give the ball away early in games, he’ll have a tough time pulling off his fourth-quarter heroics against an improved Packers defense on Sunday night.
So when this game starts, two very evenly-matched teams will do their best to win a game that both teams need to win. I don’t think we’ll see a blowout in favor of either team Sunday night. Rather, this one looks to me like a high-scoring slugfest that either team can win, but only one team will win. The last possession might determine the outcome, but somehow I don’t think it will this time around.
Here are some of the things I’ll be watching during the game:
• The Packers offensive line, along with all NFL offensive lines, has had trouble with the Giants defensive line. The re-shuffled line, with Lang now in at RT for Bulaga and Evan Dietrich-Smith in at LG for Lang, will just have to find a way to deal with the likes of Pierre-Paul, Umenyiora, and Tuck. It’s been done by other teams this season. The Packers O line won’t need to dominate the Giants DL … just beat them more than they get beaten themselves.
• There has been some disharmony of late among the Giants’ DL. I’ll be watching for signs that the Pack O line is handling their business – usually starting with a solid run game on consistent carries by Starks and Green … and Rodgers not running for his life.
• The Packers receiving corps is missing only Greg Jennings as of now, and I think it would be better to let him take another week for him to get his legs under him rather than put him back in before he’s ready. He was complaining about being out of football shape, so let him get back in shape.
• That the Packers can have the top quarterback in the league, even when missing so many key receiver weapons for so many games this season, continually proves to me that the Packers have the best top-to-bottom group of catchers in the league. I’ll be watching for the Packers receivers, especially Nelson and Cobb, to carve up the Giants defense. And to catch the ball!
• Running the ball against the Giants will be up to RBs Starks and Green. They’ll need to be successful to keep the Giants defensive line honest and prevent their all-out assault on Rodgers. Both are good enough to get that done. They’ll need to be decisive in their cuts, protect the rock, and be assignment-sure when they’re called on to block – all of which they have proven they can do. I’ll be watching for them both to have some big plays in this game.
• The improved run defense, especially the big guys up front and the inside LBs, will need every bit of their ability to stop and contain Bradshaw, Wilson and Brown, but their real battle will be keeping Manning and his dancing receivers in check. I think the Giants will move the ball on the Packers defense, but when it matters the Pack D will get the job done.
• Eli Manning can and does put a few throws up for grabs each game. If he does the same against the Packers secondary, expect picks and passes defensed. The young guns in the Packers secondary have gone from a liability early in the season to a one of the team’s strengths now. I’ll be watching Manning try to figure out which CB he wants to risk throwing at.
• On special teams, Packers punter Tim Masthay has been having another steady season and I expect him to be effective again Sunday night in NYC.
• PK Mason Crosby has struggled of late. That’s not news. Crosby has a history of being streaky. The team has expressed confidence in him. The coach has expressed confidence in him. Crosby can do himself a huge favor by going out and having a solid performance in this game. I think he will.
• This one’s getting to be a weekly thing, but expect the Packers to again mix the run and the pass close to 50/50 in this game. It still works. And it still looks awesome when it works.
• The Packers will be penalized fewer times and for fewer yards than the Giants. After their performance in Detroit, they need to make things easier on themselves by playing cleaner this week.
• The Packers run game will be complementary to the passing game and I expect Green to have a couple of nice runs after the catch. Starks will contribute most of the yards on the ground, however.
• Eli Manning will be picked off twice and fumble once, leading to 17 Packers points. Hayward is tied for second in the league in interceptions with five. Watch his total rise by at least one in this game.
• Rodgers will throw for more than 300 yards against the Giants. He’ll also have a higher passer rating than Manning.
• The Pack D will notch at least four sacks of Manning. Keep your heads up when you hit number 10 in blue though guys!
• There will be a big play on special teams in this game for the Packers. I could see a blocked punt, fake FG for a first down, or a big return. Cobb is due.
• If Crosby is called upon to kick a game-winning FG, he’ll make it.
We’ll be watching the game from the comfort of our own couch this week. No competition for sound boxes or putting up with Bears fans who show up just to root against the Packers. But we’ll be making plenty of noise and Tweeting like crazy. Follow me at @PackersTX.
Bring it Giants! Go Pack GO!