Just as Aaron Rodgers confidently said they would, the Packers ran the table, won out over the final six weeks of the season and made the playoffs – clinching the NFC North division and the conference’s fourth seed, as well.
On Sunday at Lambeau Field, they host the fifth-seeded New York Giants in the Wild Card Round, and the visitors have been impolite guests the last two times they’ve played in Green Bay in the postseason. In 2007 and 2011, New York ended the Packers’ Super Bowl aspirations with cold-weather wins on the frozen tundra of football’s most famous stadium. Eli Manning will be gunning for his third playoff victory at Lambeau Field, and the at-times outstanding but also turnover-prone quarterback – along with Odell Beckham, perhaps the league’s best receiver – represent both a serious threat and a major opportunity for Green Bay’s beleaguered secondary.
These are two very different teams than the ones that battled at Lambeau Field earlier this season in Week 5, when the Packers beat the Giants, 23-16. At the time, New York was in the midst of a three-game losing slump, while Green Bay would later suffer their midseason swoon that had them 4-6 in Week 11; since then, the Giants’ defense has emerged as one of the best in the NFL and the Packers’ resurgent offense has led them to six straight wins.
"The energy that this team has is unique," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. "That is not a concern at all. It’s about as ambitious a group of men as I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with. That’s been evident from Day 1 on the journey. But at the end of the day, it’s about winning this Sunday against the Giants."
So what will happen Sunday? The only things that are guaranteed are it will be cold (around 15 degrees but sunny and clear), fans will tailgate hard and football will be played. The Packers' playoff game against the Giants is being showcased as the marquee contest of Wild Card weekend, and it's already intriguing enough, but here are five particularly important questions:
1. Can LaDarius Gunter cover Odell Beckham?
This is going to be a hugely significant matchup on Sunday. Beckham is one of the most explosive, dangerous and talented players, among all positions, in the NFL. He finished third in the league in catches (101), third in receiving yards (1,367) and fifth in touchdowns (10). His 210 yards after the catch on those scores were the most by far among players with at least 10 touchdown catches – Green Bay’s Davante Adams was a distant second with 56. He caught only five passes for 56 yards and a touchdown against the Packers in Week 5, being mostly covered by Gunter and Quinten Rollins.
Rollins (concussion) is out for Sunday’s game, rejoining the lengthy list of injured Packers cornerbacks – Sam Shields has been sidelined since Week 1, Damarious Randall has missed time and couldn’t finish last week’s game against Detroit but is questionable, and reserves Makinton Dorleant and Demetri Goodson were recently placed on injured reserve – and Gunter will likely again be tasked with covering Beckham. Gunter is slow for a cornerback, but has good size and strength, and generally tries to play to those strengths, though it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see Beckham running through the secondary and taking multiple long passes to the house.
Green Bay finished the season ranked 31st – there are 32 teams in the NFL – in passing yards allowed per game and this week promoted cornerback Herb Waters, who started the year as a wide receiver, from the practice squad because of all the injuries. The Packers will shade plenty of safety help toward Beckham, perhaps spending the entire afternoon double-teaming him on pass plays. Will it be enough? Beckham gets amped for big games, but Gunter sounded up for the challenge earlier this week, saying, "You always get excited for the big-name guys coming in."
2. Which Eli Manning will show up?
Speaking of the Giants’ pass offense, their enigmatic quarterback has the potential to win or lose this game practically by himself. Manning’s 86.0 passer rating ranked just 22nd in the NFL, while his 16 interceptions were tied for fourth-most. He’ll give the Packers’ defensive backfield lots of chances for turnovers. But they also know as well as anyone that the two-time Super Bowl champion could just as easily be great.
In the Giants’ two playoff wins in Green Bay, Manning passed for 581 yards with three touchdowns and one interception, for a 93.3 rating. He had five games this season with at least three touchdown throws, but six with at least two interceptions. The man has as many career playoff wins at Lambeau Field as Rodgers and twice as many championship rings.
Among the 12 postseason teams, New York has committed the most turnovers (27) and averaged the second-fewest points (19.4). In Week 5, Green Bay held Manning to a 51.4 completion percentage and one touchdown; he completed just 7 of 21 passes for 70 yards to his receivers in that game. Green Bay’s recently very-opportunistic defense has forced 13 turnovers over the past month, including nine interceptions. But Manning has a knack for performing better in the clutch.
3. Will Ty Montgomery reappear?
Prior to Week 15, Montgomery, the wide receiver-turned-running back, had never rushed more than nine times in a game and not for more than 60 yards. On Dec. 18 against Chicago, Montgomery got 16 carries and broke out for 162 yards and two touchdowns, including a team season-high 61-yard rush. But then in the final two games against Minnesota and Detroit, he got just nine and eight carries for 23 and 44 yards, respectively. What happened?
Among the 58 NFL players who rushed the ball at least 75 times this year, none averaged more yards after first contact than Montgomery’s 3.27, according to ESPN Stats & Info. The guy is a gifted runner, with strength, vision and speed. Even against the Giants’ stingy run defense, which ranked tied for third by allowing only 88.6 yards per game, Montgomery needs the ball a dozen times, in order to balance the Packers’ offense.
Sub-question: Will McCarthy feed the emergent running back on Sunday?
4. Can Aaron Rodgers stay hot?
As far as teams go, momentum is a nebulous, unquantifiable thing – though Julius Peppers said this week that "momentum is a real thing, and we have a little bit of it." The Packers’ six-game winning streak does suggest they're clicking, but there’s absolutely no question that the team’s quarterback is red hot right now.
Since Week 11, Rodgers has been unstoppable, averaging 8.37 yards per passing attempt (fourth in the league over that span) and completing 69.7 percent of his throws (fifth). His passer rating (104.2) has jumped from 15th to second, and his 40 touchdowns for the season led the league. He hasn’t thrown an interception in his last 245 attempts, the longest streak of his career, and has 15 touchdowns to zero interceptions over the six-game winning streak.
With Rodgers in a groove the past month and a half, Green Bay has averaged 30.8 points per game, which over a full season would have ranked second in the NFL. When the Packers didn’t score at least 30 points, they were average, going 5-5 in such games this year. The Giants’ defense allowed the second-fewest points in the league. Will the Packers continue to "run the table," as Rodgers said back in November?
5. What about the other pass-catchers?
Everyone knows about Adams, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, the Packers’ premier receivers. But it’s been a couple of lesser-known pass-catchers that have proven to be vital recently, with wide receiver Geronimo Allison and tight end Jared Cook becoming significant contributors.
According to ESPN, when the oft-injured Cook has played, Rodgers is averaging 8.4 yards per attempt, with 17 touchdowns versus just one interception and a passer rating of 119.5. With Cook off the field, Rodgers is averaging 6.8 yards per attempt, with 23 scores against six interceptions and a 97.1 rating. The athletic Cook is not only a safety valve for his quarterback, but also a downfield deep threat.
As for Allison, the undrafted rookie has eight catches for 157 yards and a touchdown in his past two games, while playing for the injured Cobb (ankle), who’s questionable for Sunday. At 6-foot-3, he presents matchup problems for smaller defenders, and with the Giants’ three best cornerbacks – Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Eli Apple – likely covering Nelson, Adams and Cobb, Allison could play a major role in this game.
"(Allison’s) made plays consistently in practice over the last five or six weeks, which gives you the feeling that if he gets an opportunity or we need him to be in there, he’s going to make a play," Rodgers said this week. "And that’s why he’s been a big part of our success and I’ve gone to him in certain situations, because I’ve seen it in practice."
What's the biggest question? What do you think will happen in Sunday's game? Let us know in the comments!
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.