The 7-3 Green Bay Packers have a big game this Sunday night on national TV versus the 6-4 New York Giants at MetLife Stadium. Both teams lead their respective divisions. The Packers have won five games in a row, while the G-Men have lost their last two games.
The Packers have played four games in New Jersey since 1998. Green Bay has won all four games, including last season's contest.
However, the Giants have won when it counted most, as New York has beaten the Packers twice at Lambeau Field in the postseason in the last five years—including last year.
The Packers want to continue their winning momentum, as they now have the NFC North lead after chasing the Bears all season. Meanwhile, the Giants played badly in a 31-13 loss at Cincinnati two weeks ago, and are trying to right the ship after their bye week.
I see five keys in this game for the Packers to once again go into Jersey and come away with a win.
Aaron Rodgers has owned the New York Giants in the regular season. In his last two regular season games (one each season), Rodgers has thrown eight touchdown passes versus just one pick for 773 yards. That's an average of 386 yards a game with a quarterback rating of 121.2.
However, in the postseason game in Green Bay this past January, Rodgers did not perform quite as well. The main reasons were the G-Men's pass rush and several dropped passes by his receivers. Rodgers still threw for 264 yards and two touchdowns, but also threw an interception.
Rodgers also lead the Packers in rushing that game with 66 yards, mostly because he was scrambling from pass pressure. The Giants sacked Rodgers four times in that game, and one play was particularly damaging.
Rodgers saw the wide open Greg Jennings streaking towards the end zone in the third quarter. Rodgers had started to throw Jennings the ball, but it was stripped just after Rodgers started his delivery. The football was recovered by the Giants.
Meanwhile, Rodgers was only sacked once in the regular season game in 2011.
The Giants have 25 sacks so far in 2012, and they will be going up against Green Bay's revamped offensive line.
The Packers have given up 32 sacks—30th in the NFL—but that must be kept to a minimum Sunday night.
If the line holds up and allows Rodgers time to scan the secondary, the results should be very good based on his recent history against the Giants.
At least in the regular season.
The Packers have won five games in a row. The biggest reason is due to the performance of Aaron Rodgers, who has thrown 17 touchdown passes versus just two picks.
But one reason Rodgers has been so successful throwing the football is due to the Pack's renewed sense of offensive balance. In those five games, Green Bay has attempted to run the ball 20 times or more in each game.
The results haven't been effective in terms of rushing yardage, but the attempts keep the opponents on their heels defensively.
The Packers are 24th in the NFL in rushing and average only 99.2 yards a game, but that pattern of balance has to continue.
When the Packers won Super Bowl XLV, running back James Starks led all NFL backs with 315 yards rushing in the 2010 postseason.
Rodgers also had a fabulous 2010 postseason, as he threw nine touchdown passes, compared to just two picks. Rodgers topped it all off by being named Super Bowl XLV MVP.
Starks also had a decent game against the Giants last postseason, when he had 43 yards rushing in just six carries (7.2 average).
The Packers have to keep giving the rock to Starks and the other backs, plus run some draw plays and screens to keep the front four of the Giants off balance.
Bottom line, the Packers have proven that a balanced offense is a winning formula.
Just ask Aaron Rodgers.
Which Eli Manning will the Packers see on Sunday night? The Eli who threw for 330 yards last postseason and three touchdowns? Or the Eli who threw four picks against the Packers at Lambeau Field in the 2010 regular season?
Manning warmed up before that big postseason game last year by throwing for 347 yards and three touchdowns in the regular season game.
There definitely seems to be a Jekyll and Hyde syndrome with Eli when he has faced the Packers recently.
Manning has struggled quite a bit in 2012, as he has thrown 12 touchdown passes, compared to 11 picks, for 2,641 yards. Manning also has a very mediocre 81.8 quarterback average.
In 2010—as now—the Packers were second in the NFL in sacks. In the 2010 regular season game in which the Packers picked off four Manning passes, the Packers only sacked Eli once, but he was under a heavy pass rush.
Manning has only been sacked 12 times so far in 2012, but he tends to force the ball when under heavy pass pressure.
The Packers need to take advantage of that part of Eli's game on Sunday night.
Last season, the wide receivers of the Giants had their way with the Packers secondary, both in the regular season and the postseason.
The two biggest culprits? Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz.
Nicks had seven receptions for 88 yards, and two touchdowns in the regular season game, and then had seven more catches for a whopping 165 yards and two more touchdowns in the postseason game.
One of the touchdowns came on a successful "Hail Mary" at the end of the first half, when Nicks caught a 37 yard touchdown pass from Eli Manning as he was surrounded by a number of defenders from the Packers.
Cruz also had success against the Packers in those two games. In the regular season game, Cruz caught seven passes for 119 yards; in the postseason, Cruz caught five more passes for 74 yards.
The secondary for the Packers has changed dramatically since those last season games. Charles Woodson and Sam Shields are both injured, while safety Charlie Peprah was released. And while Jarrett Bush is still with the Packers, he mostly plays special teams, rarely seeing any time in the secondary.
The only two holdovers are cornerback Tramon Williams and safety Morgan Burnett. The other safety position has been played by both rookie Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings, while rookie Casey Hayward and Davon House have manned the other corner position.
In the nickel and dime schemes that the Packers play, Hayward plays the slot position, which is the position Woodson played when he was on the field. Hayward has had a phenomenal rookie year, as he already has five interceptions and looks a lot like a young Woodson, with his instincts for the football.
Hayward will be covering Cruz in the slot. Williams will be on Nicks most of the time, and unlike last season, Williams is healthy and has had a very nice season thus far. Williams looks like he did in 2010, when he made the Pro Bowl and led the Packers with three interceptions in the postseason.
Containing Nicks and Cruz will be a tough task. But the Packers should be much more able to do that this year as opposed to last season.
If the Packers win the turnover battle on Sunday night versus the Giants, odds are that they will also win the ballgame.
When the Giants shocked the 15-1 Packers last January at Lambeau Field in the NFC Divisional Playoff game, the Packers had four turnovers, compared to just one for the G-Men. The result? A 37-20 loss.
When the Packers beat the Giants 38-35 last season at MetLife Stadium, the Packers only had one turnover, compared to two by the Giants. The result? A win by the Pack.
When the Packers thrashed the Giants 45-17 at Lambeau Field in the 2010 regular season, the Packers only had one turnover, while the Giants had six.
Do you sense a pattern here?
The Packers have to protect the football at all times against the Giants, plus force turnovers whenever it's possible.
It's a winning combination.