On January 20, 2008, the 10-6 New York Giants entered Lambeau Field to face off against the 13-3 Green Bay Packers for a trip to Super Bowl XLII. Eli Manning was still trying to step out of his older brother's shadow while Brett Favre was looking to solidify his legacy with one last hoorah (pff..). Tom Coughlin and Mike McCarthy were both looking for their first Super Bowl rings as head coaches.
What ensued would become an instant classic. The Giants would win the game on a Lawrence Tynes 47-yard field goal in overtime, completing their third straight playoff road victory. Two weeks later, they shocked the world by defeating the previously undefeated New England Patriots to win it all.
A few years later, the Packers would get a little revenge, helping keep the G-Men out of the playoffs, then going on a very similar playoff run to win Super Bowl XLV.
Now, it's 2012.
The 9-7 New York Giants are heading to Lambeau once more to face off against the 15-1 Green Bay Packers. This time for a trip back to the NFC Championship. Eli Manning will look to surpass his older brother's success while Aaron Rodgers will look to surpass the success of his predecessor. Tom Coughlin and Mike McCarthy will now be hunting for their second rings.
The similarities are there. In 2008, the Giants came into the game eight-point underdogs. So far for this game, the spread favors Green Bay by 8.5 points.
However, while there will be plenty of parallels between this Sunday's game and 2008's NFC Championship Game, there will also be some significant differences that will play key roles in deciding its outcome.
Here are the top five of each...
There are two certainties going into this game.
Firstly, there will be 73,000 loud, crazy, frozen-snot-nosed Packer fans crammed into Lambeau.
Secondly, it will be cold.
The temperature at kickoff in 2008 was zero degrees Fahrenheit with a wind-chill factor that dropped temperatures to minus-23 degrees. The forecast thus far calls for a kickoff temp of around 20 degrees...so basically t-shirt weather. But that number will most likely drop as the week goes on.
These conditions will have noticeable effects. Lawrence Tynes' 47-yarder back in 2008 remains the longest field goal in Lambeau playoff history.
If we're treated to another overtime this game, game plans for the first couple of drives are going to be different.
Before the start of last season, a rule change was implemented that says the team that wins the coin-toss cannot win an overtime playoff game with a field goal on their first possession. Now, if that team wants to win on their first possession, they must get in the end zone.
If they kick a field goal, then the opposing team will get a chance to drive. If the team that won the coin-toss stops the opposing team, they win. If the opposing team also kicks a field goal, then the game continues with normal sudden-death rules. If they score a touchdown, they win.
The rule was tested (very briefly) for the first time this past weekend, when the Denver Broncos went to overtime with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Broncos won the toss, then won the game on the next play with an 80-yard touchdown pass from Tim Tebow to Demaryius Thomas.
Who knows. Perhaps the game would have gone differently had this rule been in effect back in 2008...probably not, though.
Don't let the cuteness of this photo fool you. Giants running backs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw mean business. In 2008, the tandem combined for 130 yards (67 from Jacobs, 63 from Bradshaw) and scored both touchdowns for New York. This year their production was shockingly abysmal as the Giants finished the season with the least amount of rushing yards per game in the entire league.
However, they showed serious glimmers of hope last weekend after shredding the sixth-best run defense in the league for a combined 155 yards. Green Bay's run protection was middle-of-the-pack this season and the two RBs combined for 100 yards on 19 carries in their 38-35 loss to them during the year, so a big game out of Jacobs and Bradshaw is quite possible and almost certainly needed if the Giants plan to get out of Wisconsin alive.
In 2008, both the Giants and Packers secondaries were OK.
Not great. But OK.
In 2011, the Giants and Packers secondaries have been atrocious. Although both teams fared well with interceptions (Green Bay actually lead the league with 31), apparently their corners forgot that, once you missed an interception and the wideout caught it, you then had to chase and tackle them. The Giants finished 29th in passing yards allowed per game while Green Bay finished dead last.
It's no wonder why Manning and Rodgers threw for a combined seven touchdown passes back in Week 13. There is no indication that this week will be any different so expect another shootout. Of course, if one of these secondaries were to step up, it's safe to say that team would be moving on to the NFC Championship.
A very strong case could be made that the Giants pass rush versus the Packers offensive line is the key matchup going into this weekend. Back in 2007, Big Blue lead the league in sacks. In Super Bowl XLII, the Giants pass rush caused Tom Brady so much trouble that many believed New York's defensive line should have won a collective Super Bowl MVP instead of Eli Manning. Oddly enough, the pass rush was fairly quiet during the NFC Championship that year, as they failed to get a single sack on Favre.
This season, the Giants pass rush was the best it's been since 2007, finishing tied for third in the league with 48 sacks. Super Bowl XLII holdovers Osi Umenyiora (pictured here sacking Matt Ryan with what appears to be an offensive lineman attached to his chest) and Justin Tuck are now joined by 23-year-old phenom Jason Pierre Paul going into Green Bay.
They will be facing a pass block that is significantly less effective than Atlanta's. If the front four can, at the least, hurry Aaron Rodgers the way they hurried Matt Ryan, the Giants chances will be increased significantly.
Dom Capers signed on as defensive coordinator for the Green Bay Packers in 2009. The team saw immediate improvements in most defensive categories and, in 2010, they were rewarded with a Super Bowl win. While Capers' D showed some serious flaws this season, it remained very dangerous, intercepting eight more passes than any other defense in the NFL.
Also, with Capers came a switch to the 3-4 defense (three down linemen with four linebackers). This gives the Packers the element of surprise when it comes to guessing where their fourth pass-rusher is coming from, but it also runs the risk of losing a play-making linebacker in a block.
One thing is certain, though.
The Giants have yet to defeat the Packers since their switch to the 3-4. They'll get another shot this weekend.
(Special thanks to my good friend, professional football defensive expert and self-loathing Jet fan Anthony Rao for explaining the intricacies of the 3-4 to me.)
When they met in 2008, Tom Coughlin and Mike McCarthy were coming from very different backgrounds. Coughlin was a veteran NFL coach thought to be on his last legs, having been in New York for four years without a deep playoff run. McCarthy was young and up-and-coming, looking to build off the 13-3 season he put together in just his second year as a head coach.
Their end-goals, however, were the same; a ring.
Coughlin would win that matchup and reach that goal first. McCarthy would reach the top a couple years later.
Now they meet again. And the circumstances haven't changed much. Coughlin is, once again, thought to be nearing his end as a head coach while Mike McCarthy is coming off a 15-1 season and looking to build on an already impressive legacy.
Once again, the end-game is the same.
Coughlin is 0-3 all time versus McCarthy in the regular season, but 1-0 in the playoffs. Will the trend continue? We'll find out.
Although the Giants were getting some nice production out of an aging Amani Toomer and the Packers were beginning to see the true potential of Greg Jennings, both team's passing games were really one-man shows comprised of Plaxico Burress for New York and Donald Driver for Green Bay.
During the NFC Championship, both men had monster games. Burress caught 11 balls for 154 yards while Driver caught five for 141, including a 90-yard touchdown pass.
Going into Sunday's game, there's no doubt that Manning and Rodgers will have a far wider array of weaponry.
Manning will have Hakeem Nicks and the surprise of the season for the Giants, Victor Cruz. The two combined for 158 catches for 2,728 yards and 16 touchdowns. Plus Mario Manningham and Jake Ballard have made for great alternate targets this season. On Green Bay's end, this season Donald Driver had a decent six touchdown receptions. This was good for FIFTH among GB's wideouts. Ahead of him were James Jones (7), Jermichael Finley (8), Greg Jennings (9) and Jordy Nelson (15).
I know I gave both teams' secondaries a tough time earlier, but with receivers like this what can you really do?
Before the playoffs in early 2008, Eli Manning's play as quarterback for New York couldn't be described as anything better than mediocre. Then he threw six touchdowns and only one pick in four playoff games on his way to winning the Super Bowl and the Super Bowl's Most Valuable Player. Since then, Eli has established himself as, not just the younger brother of Peyton Manning, but a top-tier NFL quarterback.
This past season was arguably his best yet. Eli threw for nearly 5,000 yards (something his older brother never did) and connected on 29 touchdown passes for a QB rating of 92.9. Last weekend at MetLife Stadium, he tacked on three more touchdowns in a 24-2 rout of Atlanta.
Eli seems better than ever.
But what is most impressive about him, is his tendency to come through in the clutch. This season, Manning lead the Giants to five fourth-quarter comebacks and set an NFL record for most fourth-quarter touchdown passes with 15.
Based on their meeting earlier this year, it would be shocking if Manning wasn't playing for the game come the fourth quarter on Sunday.
Washington Sentinels head coach Jimmy McGinty once said "Winners want the ball." In the fourth quarter, with the game on the line, Eli Manning wants the ball.
It would take an impressive football player to make Brett Favre an afterthought in Green Bay, but that's exactly what Aaron Rodgers has done (with a little bit of help from Brett Favre himself).
After sitting on the bench for three years, Rodgers debuted in 2008 with a 93.8 QB rating. His next three seasons would all end with ratings over 100. His last, this past season, was nothing short of spectacular. Piling up 45 touchdowns and only six interceptions, Rodgers finished with a rating of 122.5, setting an NFL record.
Not surprisingly, Green Bay rode Rodgers to a 15-1 record, a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
Now he'll lead the charge against the Giants; a team that he threw four touchdowns against earlier in the year.
Manning and Rodgers are no doubt the most important similarities and differences coming into this matchup, because, whichever quarterback can outplay the other, will almost certainly be taking their team to the game where they last met in January.