Aaron Rodgers looks to continue his magical season on Sunday.
The final divisional game will feature the defending Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers hosting Eli Manning and the New York Giants. The Packers went 15-1 this season and earned the NFC’s top seed by virtue of winning the NFC North.
One of the Packers' victories came against the Giants in Week 13. Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers threw for 369 yards and 4 TD and drove Green Bay down the field at the end of regulation to set up a game-winning 31-yard field goal by Mason Crosby on the game’s final play in a 38-35 victory. Manning threw for 347 yards in the loss, as the Giants came within an eyelash of ending the Packers’ then-undefeated season.
Manning continued his fantastic season in New York’s victory over Atlanta last week. He threw for 277 yards and three touchdowns, including two to Hakeem Nicks. Nicks also scored two TDs in the loss to Green Bay and could be in line for another big day. The key to New York’s win was the ability to establish the running game. The Giants finished dead last in both yards per carry (3.5) and total rushing yards (89.2 per game) during the regular season, but broke through for 172 rushing yards and 5.5 yards per rush against the Falcons.
Breakout WR Victor Cruz was held in check, but Mario Manningham picked up the slack with 68 receiving yards and a TD. The passing offense continues to roll along, and if New York can continue to keep defenses honest with the run, they have a legitimate shot of defeating Green Bay.
The Packers finished last statistically in both total defense and passing defense. However, as is the case with New Orleans and New England, this is slightly misleading because Green Bay was often scoring at such an amazing clip that opposing offenses were forced to adjust and throw more than usual. Packers’ opponents attempted a league-high 637 passes and threw for 4,796 yards during the course of the year. Like the Saints and Patriots, the Packers are not particularly strong against the run on a per play basis, allowing 4.6 yards per rush.
The biggest strength of Green Bay’s defense is their ability to create turnovers, particularly in the secondary. 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson recorded seven of Green Bay’s NFL-leading 31 interceptions, far and away the most of any team. Woodson often plays in the slot and could see a lot of Cruz, leaving Nicks and Manningham on the outside against lesser CBs Tramon Williams and Sam Shields.
Rodgers leads the prolific Green Bay passing attack and will almost certainly be rewarded with the NFL MVP award. He threw for 4,643 yards and 45 touchdowns despite resting in Week 17. Perhaps most impressive was that he threw just six interceptions and lost no fumbles. WR Jordy Nelson led all qualified receivers in both yards per catch (18.6) and yards per target (13.16) while catching 15 TD passes. Greg Jennings totaled 949 receiving yards despite missing the last three games with a sprained MCL. He should be fully recovered in time for Sunday’s game. James Jones, Donald Driver and Randall Cobb all possess playmaking ability and allow Green Bay to spread the field against opposing defenses.
The Packers use the run only sparingly to keep defenses honest. They employed almost a 50/50 split between RBs Ryan Grant and James Starks, but rushed for just 97.4 yards per game as a team. Their biggest weapon in this game may be TE Jermichael Finley. In their Week 13 contest, Finley caught six passes for 87 yards and a touchdown, and the Giants have struggled against elite tight ends throughout the year. They should be able to move the ball through the air as long as Rodgers has time to throw in the pocket.
The Giants defense was phenomenal against the Falcons, recording a virtual shutout, as the only Atlanta points came via a safety on defense. New York held Atlanta to just 247 yards of total offense and were equally effective against both the run and the pass. I was most impressed with their ability to play the pass, as Matt Ryan averaged just 4.9 yards per attempt. The Falcons' longest play of the day was a 21-yard pass to Roddy White.
I don’t expect New York to be able to control Green Bay’s offense in the same fashion, but the Giants are playing with a lot of confidence defensively and possess an outstanding pass rush. Green Bay’s offensive line is banged up, so look to see if New York can get Rodgers on the ground and limit the number of big plays. If they are successful in disrupting Rodgers' timing, they have a chance to pull off the upset.
This has the potential to be the most intriguing matchup of the weekend. The Packers have only lost one game in the last 13 months and will have the home field advantage and a week of rest. The Giants have the experience of their prior matchup with Green Bay and the knowledge that they can hang with the Pack.
I think this will be a highly competitive game, but in the end I see Aaron Rodgers being the difference. As great as Eli Manning has been this season, he is still prone to the occasional hiccup, be it a bad throw or a bad game. Rodgers, however, has been nearly perfect for almost a season and a half. He hasn’t turned the ball over more than once in a game all season and he has weapons all over the field. He could struggle at times with New York’s pass rush behind a suspect offensive line, but I believe that he will be able to make a big play when Green Bay needs him to and lead the Packers back to the NFC Championship game.
Prediction: Green Bay 31, New York 27