The Green Bay Packers (15-1, NFC No. 1) host the New York Giants (10-7, NFC No. 4) Sunday in the NFC’s Divisional Round of the 2012 playoffs.
When: 3:30 CST, Sunday, January 15, 2012.
Where: Lambeau Field, Green Bay, WI.
TV: FOX; Joe Buck and Troy Aikman on the call, Pam Oliver on the sidelines.
Radio: 620 AM WTMJ (Milwaukee); Packers Radio Network; NFL Sunday Drive; Westwood One.
Series: Packers lead, 31-23-2 (Giants won last playoff meeting, 23-20 (OT) on Jan. 20, 2008 in NFC Championship Game).
Five things to watch
1. Rookie factor
Not since Desmond Howard have the Packers had a special teams weapon that could routinely flip field position. They have one now in rookie Randall Cobb, and you better believe that teams are treating him as such. As the season wore on, more and more teams hedged their bets and kicked away from Cobb.
At the very least, Cobb can ensure the Packers aren’t playing offense from the shadow of their own goal posts Sunday. And if the Giants give him enough chances, Cobb can break that one big play that can turn the game.
2. Opposite rush
Expecting a breakout performance from the Packers’ outside linebacker position after 16 games of mediocrity (that’s putting it nicely) is overly optimistic. But there is some hope that the Packers can get something from a player opposite Clay Matthews Sunday.
Brad Jones showed some life in Week 17 with a hustle sack and a couple of stops in the running game. He’ll likely get the majority of the early snaps against the Giants. In addition, Erik Walden had one of his better pass rushing games of the season back in Week 13 in New York. A solid performance from either player, or preferably both, would be a huge lift for the Packers defense.
3. Big Fella catchin’ on
For all the criticism Jermichael Finley took during most of the regular season, the Packers’ enigmatic tight end really started to come on during the last five games of the season. A five-game stretch that saw him catch 19 passes for 254 yards and three scores started in New York, where Finley went for 87 yards, including a huge catch on the Packers’ game-winning drive, and a first-half touchdown.
With the Giants’ suspect linebackers coming to Lambeau, Finley again needs to play a big role. And as we all saw on Saturday, the tight end position (Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis, Rob Gronkowski) can have a huge influence over the course of a football game. Let’s see if the Packers’ version can have an equally important impact Sunday.
4. Safety net
Earlier this week, Bob McGinn reported that Dom Capers and the Packers assistant coaches “conducted a rare, brutal film critique” with the defense. “Egos were checked at the door,” McGinn tweeted. Just a guess, but I’d say Capers and safety coach Darren Perry had plenty to say to both Morgan Burnett and Charlie Peprah in that meeting. While the entire secondary has had its problems, the Packers’ safety combination has been exposed time after time in 2011.
The Giants’ first score in Week 13 was a perfect example: Travis Beckum initially got deep behind Peprah, who was simply outrun on an out-and-up from Beckum. Burnett was late to shift over, and Beckum then weaved his way between Peprah and Burnett for the touchdown. You better believe that the Giants will want to put plenty of pressure on Burnett and Peprah again in the rematch, and how those two respond will go a long ways in determining how well the Packers pass defense plays. Big plays—the Packers have allowed 71 passing plays over 20 yards—have to be limited.
5. His tallest task
During the Packers’ six-game winning streak to end the 2010 season, left tackle Chad Clifton ran the gauntlet of pass rushers and came out mostly unscathed. Justin Tuck, Julius Peppers, Trent Cole, John Abraham and James Harrison accounted for just two sacks against Clifton during that six-game stretch.
That said, the Packers’ 35-year-old left tackle will likely face one of the toughest matchups Sunday he’s had in his NFL career. The problem starts with Jason Pierre-Paul, who owns 16.5 sacks and an All-Pro selection this season and will be lined up against Clifton all afternoon. Few defensive players can be as consistently disruptive as Pierre-Paul over the course of 60 minutes. Typically, that wouldn’t be a huge worry with Clifton anchoring the left side. But when you consider that Clifton has played exactly one quarter of live football in the last three months, you can see what kind of battle he’s in for on Sunday. There’s no time for rust against Pierre-Paul.
Prediction: Giants 34, Packers 31
This is blasphemy, I know. Maybe my subjectiveness has gone too far.
But here’s what I know: The Giants can and likely will run the football on the Packers’ thin defensive line. Clifton has played one rusty quarter in three months. And there wasn’t a discernible advantage the Packers showed in the first meeting that makes me think this won’t be a close game. A safe, controlled gameplan on offense and a handful of big plays from the defensive line are the difference for the Giants.
Here’s to hoping the last 50 words of this story are 100 percent incorrect.——————
Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.
You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.Follow @zachkruse2