The teams: The Green Bay Packers (7-3) vs. the New York Giants (6-4).
The time: 7:20 p.m. CST Sunday.
The place: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
The TV coverage: NBC – WTMJ (Ch. 4 in Milwaukee), WMTV (Ch. 15 in Madison) and WGBA (Ch. 26 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth in the booth.
The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 75-39 (including 5-3 in the postseason) in his seventh season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. The Giants' Tom Coughlin is 88-61 (including 8-3 in the postseason) in his ninth year as the Giants' coach and is 160-125 overall in his 17th year as an NFL head coach.
The series: The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series 27-21-2 and also hold a 4-3 advantage in postseason play. The Packers have won seven of the teams' last 10 meetings, although the Giants won the ones that mattered most, winning the 2007 NFC Championship Game and a 2011 NFC Divisional Playoff Game at Lambeau Field last January..
The rankings: The Packers' 18th-ranked offense is No. 24 in rushing and No. 11 in passing. Their 16th-ranked defense is No. 11 against the run and No. 21 against the pass. The Giants' 11th-ranked offense is No. 13 in rushing and No. 9 in passing. Their 22nd-ranked defense is No. 15 against the run and No. 25 against the pass.
The line: The Giants are favored by 2.5 points.
The injury report:
Out – CB Sam Shields (ankle), S Charles Woodson (collarbone), OLB Clay Matthews (hamstring), ILB Terrell Manning (shoulder).
Questionable – WR Greg Jennings (groin/abdomen), TE Andrew Quarless (knee).
Probable – WR Donald Driver (thumb), FB John Kuhn (hamstring), DT B.J. Raji (ankle), OLB Vic So'oto (illness), OLB Erik Walden (ankle).
Out – WR Domenik Hixon (ankle), LB Jacquian Williams (knee).
Questionable – S Kenny Phillips (knee), LB Keith Rivers (calf/knee),
Full participation – RB Ahmad Bradshaw (foot), C David Baas (ankle), S Tyler Sash (ankle), G Chris Snee (ankle), DT Linval Joseph (knee).
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Case of the drops: Aaron Rodgers has always insisted that it's mental mistakes, not physical ones, that get his goat. And based on how the Packers quarterback reacts on the field to his teammates – sometimes angrily jumping them for mental errors while not showing much obvious negative body language after a physical mistake like a dropped pass – would back up his contention.
According to ProFootballFocus.com, only two other quarterbacks have gotten more practice this season at reacting to drops by their receivers than Rodgers. Entering this week's games, Detroit's Matthew Stafford had watched his would-be pass-catchers drop 33 passes, and Cleveland's Brandon Weeden had seen 32 passes dropped. Rodgers was third at 31, or 8.8 percent of his attempts. Rodgers' drop percentage also ranks third in the NFL, behind Tennessee's Jake Locker (11 percent) and Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert (9.7 percent). ProFootballFocus then took those numbers and created a stat called Adjusted Completion Percentage, which in Rodgers' case was 75.99 percent, the second-best in the league behind Denver's Peyton Manning.
"From our standards, one drop is too many. One drop is too many," Packers wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett said this week. "We certainly have to do a better job catching the football consistently. Regardless of the situation – be it more fundamentals as far as sometimes it's hand placement, sometimes it's not looking the ball in and looking to run first. The bottom line is, we've got to catch the football. We've got to catch the football. And we know from a fundamentals standpoint how to do that. From a focus standpoint, we know what it's going to take to get that done. We have to apply it."
While the perception is that one player – you know who – is the worst offender, the Packers in fact have three receivers with seven drops: Wide receiver Jordy Nelson, wide receiver Randall Cobb and tight end Jermichael Finley. Finley has dropped seven of 48 targets, Nelson has dropped seven of 62 and Cobb has dropped seven of 69.
What's remarkable is that Rodgers' receivers have been relatively consistent in their drop numbers. As mentioned, Rodgers has had 31 of 354 attempts dropped this year (8.8 percent). Last season, receivers dropped 48 of 548 (8.8 percent). In 2009, 48 of 583 (8.2 percent). And in 2008, 43 of 536 (8.1 percent). The 2010 season is the anomaly, when they dropped 41 of 607 (6.8 percent).
Drops have certainly hurt the Packers in the past against the Giants – in the regular-season meeting at New York, they dropped seven passes by ProFootballFocus' account; in the playoff loss, they dropped eight.
"It's a focus of ours," McCarthy said. "It's something we did not do a very good job of last year, and I feel like we've been a little bit up and down this year. It was obviously a major negative in both our games against the Giants last year. That's definitely a part of our objectives, and we're focused on doing a better job there."
Run for Cover(-2): There was nothing complex about the Detroit Lions' defensive approach last week against Rodgers and the Packers offense.
"They played two-shell almost the entire game and didn't bring one pressure," quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo said.
That's right, the Lions, even with both their starting safeties out, sat back in a Cover-2 defense and didn't blitz Rodgers a single time. And they're not alone. That was essentially what the Giants did in their playoff victory over the Packers in January, and it's what the Packers have faced more or less all season, as defenses have decided that it's the scheme that gives them the best chance of neutralizing the NFL MVP and his cast of receivers.
Some of those teams have stepped out of their normal defensive protocols to do so, and the Giants aren't any different. Generally speaking, they like to rush the passer with their vaunted front four, but they're more likely to play safety Antrel Rolle down in the box to help defend the run. Against the Packers, though, teams have essentially dared Alex Green and James Starks to run against them because they feel their safeties are better off playing back to take away many of Rodgers' downfield options.
"I wouldn't really put them in (the Cover-2) category. But I understand why you're asking the question," McCarthy said when asked about the Giants' defensive approach. "Just knowing the history defensively, (New York playing single-high safety) is not something we're set on. We're played a number of teams this year coming off bye weeks. It's not week 1, Week 2, Week 3 as far as unscouted looks, but I'm sure there's going to be a wrinkle or two that we have not seen on video that will probably show up Sunday night."
The keys against a Cover-2 approach are the same every week – patience and a successful ground game – and the Packers have been hit-or-miss this season.
"(Running the ball) would take some of the pressure off of the passing game if we could have a little more balance there and just be a little more effective," Rodgers said. "Hopefully (it would) make the defense have to get out of their 2-shell defenses. Now, some defenses will come in and play what they want to play, but you've seen a couple times teams that just sat back in Cover-2 and have been able to stop us with their front four, six and seven. So we have to do a better job of running the ball when we get those clean looks."
"You have to do what the defense allows you to do," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. "(The Lions) were in defend mode and they were getting decent pressure with their front four, so it was the type of game we had to play. At times it does get frustrating, but you have to fight that frustration because that's part of their plan, as well."
Keeping up with the Joneses: Where would the Packers be without Brad Jones? If there was one position on defense where it appeared the team had more starting-caliber players than spots entering training camp, it was inside linebacker. They had veteran A.J. Hawk, the coaches' favorite glue guy, who wasn't going anywhere; they had Desmond Bishop, who was arguably their best defensive player last season; and they had second-year man D.J. Smith, who'd filled in well for Bishop when he suffered a calf injury last year.
Fast forward to now. Bishop was lost for the season in the Aug. 9 preseason opener at San Diego with a ruptured hamstring tendon, and Smith, who played well in his place, was lost for the year to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee suffered Oct. 14 at Houston. That left Jones, a 2009 seventh-round draft pick who filled in as a starter at outside linebacker as a rookie when Aaron Kampman went down, lost the starting gig in 2010, was given a last-ditch chance outside for the regular-season finale and playoff loss to the Giants last year and had a sack in each game, and was converted to inside linebacker this offseason mainly because he was such a keeper on special teams and the team had plenty of outside linebackers.
"We always felt like he was kind of a marginal-sized guy to be out there and have to go out there and rush against those 320-pound tackles," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said of Jones. "But we liked his movement, and Brad has good football instincts. Brad's a smart guy, and that helps him tremendously."
Jones has responded by showing that he has the chops for the position, registering 12 tackles and a sack against Jacksonville on Oct. 28, nine tackles and a pass breakup against Arizona on Nov. 4 and six tackles last week against Detroit, an otherwise solid game which was marred by the 15-yard personal foul penalty he received.
"Brad Jones is a heck of a football player. He always has been his whole time here," McCarthy said. "He does a great job of commanding the huddle and the things he wasn't really asked to do because we spent some time playing him outside and inside. We've never really given him a chance to just find a home base. Now that he's been given an opportunity, I think he's playing extremely well. Extremely well. He's very versatile. I can't say enough about Brad Jones."
Marquee matchup: Packers offensive line coach James Campen likes to talk about his guys building "libraries' on their opponents. At this point, left tackle Marshall Newhouse has quite the collection of literature on Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.
Sunday night marks the third time in a 12-monh span that the two will face off. In their first meeting, in the Dec. 4 regular-season tilt, Pierre-Paul registered three quarterback hits, six hurries and batted down two passes in the Packers' 38-35 victory. In the rematch in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, when the Packers started Chad Clifton but benched the rusty veteran left tackle and brought in Newhouse, Pierre-Paul had just two hurries, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
"When (Newhouse) played him out here (in the playoffs), he played much better," Campen said. "I just think he's gained the experience from playing against an extreme athlete. There's no arguing that. The guy's an athlete. I think he's just built his library against different kinds of rushers, different body types, and certainly that guy is a different type of person as a football player. He's dynamic. Just going around the second time, I think he did much better. I know he's much better the second time around."
Newhouse, who was charged with one sack, three quarterback hits and five hurries in the first game and one sack and two hurries in the playoff game (not all against Pierre-Paul) knows how important his matchup will be. Pierre-Paul moves around a lot, lining up even at defensive tackle at times, but Newhouse will have him most of the night.
"I think every game is a learning experience. I don't think I had my best game ever (in the regular-season meeting). I mean, that's easy to see," Newhouse said. "But, we still won the game. I made a lot of good plays. As an offensive lineman, they don't really look at the ones you do well, they only look at the negative plays that we might give up. I know I took some good stuff from that game and there's some stuff I need to improve on. I understand that. But we made some improvements for the playoff game, and I'm every better now than I was then.
The 6-foot-5, 287-pound Pierre-Paul was playing well before the Giants' bye week – he had racked up five sacks, 24 tackles, forced a fumble and returned an interception for a touchdown in the previous five games – and it'll be up to Newhouse, who's quietly had a very good season, to make sure that trend ends.
"With his athleticism, he's long, he's very rangy," Newhouse said. "They move him inside at D-tackle, they'll stand him up, walk him around as a spinner a little bit, so he does a lot of things and he does a lot of things well. He's instinctual, he'll spot a play and try to blow it up. We know that about him. He's proven it over and over again in his short career. I guess we came in the same year. A guy like that, you just have to keep an eye on him, stay within our scheme and we're not really going to do a whole lot different. But we're going to be aware of him."
Book of Eli: Giants quarterback Eli Manning has never been impressive statistically. His passer rating entering Sunday night is a middling 81.8, which falls right in line with his career rating of 82.1. While he's won two Super Bowls, he's never put together gaudy numbers like Rodgers (107.3 rating this season, NFL-record 104.6 career rating). But the guy wins, as evidenced by the two Super Bowl rings he owns and the two Lombardi Trophies he's lifted.
Nevertheless, the Packers defense faces an interesting challenge against him even though he has not played well of late – his single-game passer ratings the past four weeks have been 78.9, 58.4, 41.1 and 56.0 – and he enters Sunday having thrown 12 touchdowns against 11 interceptions, including a streak of three touchdown-less games. He's also fumbled three times, losing one, during the last two games.
"It's something you have to be aware of. Eli's coming off of two Super Bowl seasons, (and) I'm not looking at this week's preparation and looking at Eli Manning any differently than last year," McCarthy said. "He's an outstanding football player. To me, he's what makes them go and that's the type of game we're getting ready for."
One of the challenges for the Packers, who entered the week's games second in the NFL in sacks with 33, is taking Manning down. He's been sacked an NFL-low 12 times this season – Rodgers, coincidentally, has been taken down an NFL-high 32 – and without Matthews in their pass-rushing repertoire, generating pressure on Manning is that much more difficult. With his good size, the 6-4, 220-pound Manning has also shown the ability to sidestep pressure or shed would-be tacklers in the pocket.
"They're No. 1 in the league in (fewest) sacks given up, and the reason for that is he's not going to take a sack," Capers said. "Even when you get pressure in there, he's like his brother (Peyton). In Indy, you get a guy free in the A-gap and you can never sack him. Then, at the end of the season, they'd have 12, 14 sacks. That's kind of the way (Eli) plays. You hope that if you can disrupt him, that (the) ball's going to come out of his hands and now guys have vision and they can break and go make plays on the ball."
As for Manning's touchdown drought, Capers sees Manning no differently than he did after the Giants' Oct. 14 throttling of the San Francisco 49ers, when Manning was a mistake-free 15 of 28 for 193 yards and a touchdown in a 26-3 victory.
"You look at some tapes and you don't see it," Capers said of Manning struggling. "I know the last couple weeks they've lost a couple games, but you go back and look at their 49er game when everybody was saying they're the best team in football and they looked like it that day. They took that ball in the fourth quarter in the four-minute drill and it was impressive what they did to the 49ers, because we know what kind of defense they have. They just pounded them. They went right down the field. They looked like the best team in football that day."unscouted looks.
There is no cheering in the press box. (And when there is, like there was in Houston, many of us get pretty hacked off about it – although some more than others. Ahem, Rob Demovsky.) Personally, I tend to root for the best storyline. And after watching Mason Crosby, a decent guy who's been well below decent with his field-goal kicking as of late, miss twice last week at Detroit, there'd be no better story of redemption than for him to kick a game-winner as time expires Sunday night. It's hard to imagine that happening two years in a row – he made a 31-yarder with 0:00 on the lock last Dec. 4 at MetLife Stadium to keep the Packers unbeaten – but it sure would make for a good story. Packers 30, Giants 27. (Record: 5-5)
– Jason Wilde