January 10, 2013
Seems like old times for the Giants - old times like 2008.
As they did in January 2008, New York went to Green Bay and knocked off the favored Packers in the playoffs. They didn't need overtime this time, pulling away to a 37-20 victory that ended Green Bay's 13-game home winning streak.
The game from that prior postseason that appeared to provide a working template for a Giants victory was Super Bowl XLII, when they topped previously unbeaten New England. New York relied on a fierce pass rush on defense and a ground game that could take time off the clock. To beat an explosive force like the 2011 Packers, as with those Patriots - both led by runaway MVP candidates - the key seemed to be keeping the ball out of the offense's hands.
Turns out Green Bay could do a pretty good job of that itself.
Seven Packers dropped a total of eight Aaron Rodgers passes. The team also lost three fumbles, one by fullback John Kuhn, who had never lost a fumble in his professional career. Add one interception - just the seventh Rodgers had thrown in more than 500 attempts this season - and you have the formula for sending a 15-1 team home for the winter.
A little luck helps too.
Just before halftime, with the Giants leading 13-10, Eli Manning threw a 37-yard Hail Mary to the left side of the end zone. Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Devin Thomas were waiting, with Mario Manningham arriving in case of a ricochet. Green Bay seemed unprepared for the final play, perhaps expecting Manning to try a shorter sideline pass to improva potential field goal position. The play was possible only because Ahmad Bradshaw not only ran for 23 yards on third-and-1 from his own 40 but was able to traverse the entire field to get out of bounds and stop the clock. Four Packers defenders - no manpower advantage - were in the area when Nicks rose and trapped the ball against his helmet visor, then gained full control as he fell to the turf.
Anyone who says he didn't immediately think of David Tyree's miracle catch in XLII is lying.
Manning was magnificent in the first half, completing 14 of 24 for 274 yards and two touchdowns. Both scores went to Nicks, who had turned an 18-yard first-quarter slant into a 66-yard TD. He absorbed a hit from safety Charlie Peprah that turned him around and pointed him in the direction of a seam through the closing defenders.
The Giants struggled on the ground all game. Before the final four minutes, they ran on first down 10 times, averaging 2.6 yards. Manning frequently found himself in third-and-long situations, but against the league's worst pass defense in yards allowed (sixth worst in yards per pass), he made several clutch conversions. In the first quarter alone, he got first downs on third-and-8, third-and-10 and third-and-11, adding another third-and-8 in the second quarter and a third-and-11 in the fourth that ended all thoughts of a Green Bay comeback.
It's not too early to consider Manning's standing among all quarterbacks in New York football history. No New Yorker has won two championships. Manning has already won as many postseason games as Phil Simms, with a much better record in road playoff games (Simms was 6-4 overall, 1-3 on the opponent's field; Manning is 6-3, 4-1 on the road). Y.A. Tittle never won a championship with the Giants. Charlie Conerly won one, but so did Jeff Hostetler.
Manning will hold the Giants records for touchdowns by the end of next season, yardage by the year after. His career completion percentage of 58.4 is better than Simms' or Tittle's, and his passer rating trails only Tittle among Giants QBs with 500 passes.
Among Jets quarterbacks, only Joe Namath is worth considering, but his resume is clouded by his low completion percentage (50.2) and passer rating (65.8), to say nothing of his 215 interceptions compared with 170 touchdowns. He played in only three postseason games, none before a hostile crowd.
For that matter, Manning's accomplishments in the postseason compare favorably to those of his brother. Peyton has a 9-10 career playoff record, 2-5 on the road. Each has won one Super Bowl.
The Giants will face a wholly different challenge in the NFC championship game against San Francisco. The 49ers defense allowed the fewest points in the conference, shutting down the running game with particular efficiency (fewest yards per game and per attempt). Their passing defense was 10th in the league in yards per attempt. Drew Brees put up 462 yards in the divisional round, but the Saints' yards per attempt, 6.9, exactly matched the Niners' season average. They turned the ball over the fewest times in the NFL, with five fumbles and five interceptions.
For what it's worth, Green Bay had the second-fewest turnovers, with 14.
To reach the Super Bowl, the Giants will need Manning to have a big game on the road, at Candlestick. Fortunately for them, he may be the best bet in the league under those circumstances.