The New York Giants didn't envision riding a two-game losing streak heading into the bye week, but they will have a chance to snap out of their small mid-season slump at home on Sunday night against a hot Green Bay Packers team.
It won't be easy for Tom Coughlin's club to bounce back, particularly in the context of their most recent 31-13 loss at Cincinnati.
QB Eli Manning has been anything but elite lately, and hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in any of his past three games. This is in spite of a much-improved running game. Just when it looked as though the Giants had complete control of the NFC East division, the past few weeks have changed that perception.
Here are the keys for New York to bounce back in this primetime, NFC divisional playoff rematch.
Apply pressure with the four-man rush
One of the things that makes Rodgers so good is his mobility. It applies to every facet of his game—pocket awareness, extending plays on the perimeter and gaining chunks of yardage with his feet when his backs aren't getting the job done.
The Giants always present a formidable challenge with their front four, led by Justin Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora.
All three are healthy, and all three will be fresh and ready to get after the reigning NFL MVP. Green Bay's protection can be leaky at times, and it will be harder than usual for Rodgers to elude the extremely athletic Giants front.
Rodgers certainly doesn't forget the playoff loss at Lambeau Field to the Giants, where he was constantly pressured. New York sacked him four times and hit him five times, getting him out of the rhythm that made his season so successful.
Bringing extra men will expose the Giants' back end, which may be without the questionable Kenny Phillips at safety once again.
Getting heat from the bigs up front will be huge in determining New York's chances of winning this one.
Take deep shots early and often
This may seem like a foolish, high-risk strategy, since giving the ball back to Rodgers and Co. in short order is never a good idea.
But with the absence of Packers' speedy CB Sam Shields and another missed game for perennial pass-rusher Clay Matthews, the Giants' veteran offensive line should be able to give Manning ample time to drive the ball downfield.
The bye week should have helped Hakeem Nicks in particular get healthier, as he has endured an injury-plagued 2012 campaign. He forms one of the best receiver duos in the league with Victor Cruz when healthy, and a more typical performance by Nicks should provide the Giants with more explosiveness.
Nicks also received some counseling from his father, who has watched his son struggle and provided him with some reassurance (h/t NorthJersey.com):
My best effort just hasn’t been good enough...My pops noticed something, that I wasn’t too happy with the way my season’s been going. He knows that I won’t ever show it, that I just carry problems quietly. So he just initiated the talk and said, "Son, everything’s going to be OK. You’re a child of God, everything’s going to work out and everything happens for a reason."
Whatever works, right? Nicks had a big game against the Bengals with nine catches for 72 yards to build some momentum. Now closer to 100 percent, look for him and Cruz to make some huge plays on Sunday night.
Ground and Pound
Breakout Giants RB Andre Brown has taken a back seat to typical starter Ahmad Bradshaw, but the powerful, 227-pound back should be more heavily utilized in light of Bradshaw's foot injury.
However, the Giants will need both to step up big in this one. The Packers have a top-10 rushing defense, and must be able to keep the defense at least somewhat honest. Brown had 65 yards on just seven carries in the Cincinnati game, including a touchdown.
But the bye week definitely helped Bradshaw heal, as he is listed as probable (h/t ESPN). That is a great sign for Manning, who needs all the help he can get since he is in such a funk lately.
The biggest aspect that Brown brings to the table is his extra weight and authority in finishing runs, something the Giants need near the goal line. New York ranks just 27th in the league in terms of touchdown percentage in the red zone (h/t TeamRankings.com).
No matter how much pressure the Giants can get on Rodgers, it will take touchdowns, not field goals, to beat Green Bay. It is absolutely critical that Brown and Bradshaw cash in on goal-to-go situations. Also, rookie first-round pick David Wilson should get more opportunities.
Otherwise, the Giants will be taking the wrong fork in this crossroads contest.