NFC East: Green Bay Packers

Live blog: Packers at Cowboys

December, 15, 2013
12/15/13
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Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Green Bay Packers' visit to the Dallas Cowboys. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 4 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.

Storied pasts loom over Cowboys, Packers

December, 13, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- As the Cowboys walk to the team meeting room every day, they are met with pictures of Dallas' five Super Bowl winners. Each collage has a team photo and pictures of smiling players, coaches and executives from winning NFL championships.

At Lambeau Field, the photos from the great moments in Packers history line the wall from the tunnel to the locker room. When the stadium was renovated years ago, they took a row of old bricks and moved it to the new tunnel so players can say they walk over the same ground as the greats who played at Lambeau Field.

With a loss Sunday, though, either team will need even more help to just make the postseason.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo and Aaron Rodgers
AP Photo/David StlukaCowboys QB Tony Romo, right, and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers know the burden that comes with playing for franchises trying to recapture past glory.
Like the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers, the Cowboys are constantly chasing ghosts from past teams.

The Packers and Cowboys have combined for 18 NFL championships (Green Bay 13, Dallas five) and nine Super Bowls (Green Bay four, Dallas five). They produced one of the NFL’s iconic games -- the Ice Bowl -- in the 1967 NFC Championship. They were coached by legends in Tom Landry and Vince Lombardi. They rekindled the rivalry in the 1990s, meeting in the playoffs from 1993 to 1995.

The current teams carry something of a burden with them because of the successful pasts.

“We always look at it as a sense of pride and energy to tap into,” Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said. “We think it’s very important to have that and recognize it and honor it, so I always refer to it as there’s pride in the bricks of Lambeau Field and it’s something we need to tap into. We talk to our current team about it and how important it is to win and represent the Green Bay Packers the right way.”

Jason Garrett does not talk about the expectations laid out from the likes of Roger Staubach, Bob Lilly, Tony Dorsett, Randy White, Mel Renfro, Michael Irvin, Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith. He talks about the standard those players and teams set.

“You want to be in a place where there’s a high standard for achievement,” Garrett said. “I think that’s a good thing. That brings the best out in people. What we try to do each and every day is be our best. Come to work as players and coaches and put our best foot forward and get ready for our challenges each week and again, embrace the past. That’s a good thing. ... That drives us. That’s part of what drives us to achieve, really, each and every day, and certainly each season.”

Tony Romo is constantly measured against Staubach and Aikman. Aaron Rodgers is measured against Bart Starr and Brett Favre, but he has the Super Bowl ring that Romo is still looking for, having beaten the Steelers at AT&T Stadium in Super Bowl XLV.

Rodgers has 23 teammates on the roster with a Super Bowl ring.

Romo hopes one day to have his own, so he and his teammates can have their pictures on the wall holding the Lombardi Trophy.

“You want to be a part of a storied franchise,” Romo said. “It just makes it important. You want a challenge. You want it to matter, and you want it to be important. That’s what’s great about this organization and great about our fans.”

Live blog: Packers at Giants

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
2:00
PM ET
Join our ESPN.com NFL experts as they break down the Green Bay Packers' visit to the New York Giants. Contribute your thoughts and questions beginning at 4 p.m. ET. And, be sure to visit our NFL Nation Blitz page for commentary from every game, as well as fan photos and the latest buzz from Twitter. See you there.

QB Watch: Redskins' Robert Griffin III

September, 11, 2013
9/11/13
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A weekly analysis of the Redskins’ quarterback play.

Griffin
Rewind: Robert Griffin III looked like a guy playing his first game in eight months coming off surgery and without benefit of a preseason game. Griffin’s numbers were respectable: 30-of-49 for 329 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. But he’s not yet the same dynamic threat, and his mechanics (and decision-making, at times) looked rusty. He wasn’t always helped by his protection. Griffin did find a rhythm in the fourth quarter, hitting mostly short underneath throws. But he completed his day with a pretty 24-yard touchdown pass to receiver Leonard Hankerson that required rhythm and finesse.

Fast-forward: The Packers did a good job taking away San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick's legs. Then again, he didn’t need them, as the Packers struggled to stop the pass, partly because they changed up their coverage strategies. Until Griffin shows he can beat teams by running, my guess is they will do what they can to take away the pass with more man-press coverage.

Inside the numbers: Griffin’s numbers were built on the short pass Monday as he completed just 2 of 11 passes for 51 yards on throws that traveled 11 or more yards according to ESPN Stats & Information. A year ago he completed 59 percent of such throws (and was at 63.4 percent on throws between 11-20 yards). That rust stems from players being unable to work as much together as usual and from not getting into a rhythm during game action. Also, against a five-man rush or more Griffin was 9-for-20 for 78 yards and an interception. He faced those situations only 83 times last season and never threw a pick (compared to 10 touchdowns and a 67.5 completion percentage).

Prediction: Griffin will take another week or two to find his true rhythm, both as a passer and as a runner. Minus corner Casey Hayward, the Packers are more susceptible at corner. If the Redskins' offense really starts clicking, then Griffin won’t be in the 300-yard range, as the ground game will take a strong share of the focus. I’d expect a more balanced attack this week -- that is, if they don’t want to fall behind big again.
Aaron RodgersRich Schultz/Getty ImagesThe Giants sacked Aaron Rodgers five times and limited him to 219 yards and one touchdown.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- There was much hand-wringing in these parts the past several weeks about the way the New York Giants were slogging their way through another November. There was fresh enthusiasm in Dallas and Washington about the idea of the defending champions slipping back toward the pack. The Giants had made all of this happen by losing their last two games prior to their Week 11 bye, then emerging from it this week and into a remaining schedule that looked as though it could well be a meat-grinder.

And then, Sunday night, the Giants beat the red-hot Green Bay Packers 38-10, and the old reality reclaimed its place in the consciousness of those who'd been imagining a different ending this year. When the Giants are fired up, focused, physical on the offensive and defensive lines and driven by some sort of powerful external motivation … well, they're just about impossible to beat.

"All week, the message was that this game is on us, this game is about us and our execution," said linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka, who had two of the Giants' five sacks of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers. "If we do what we know we can do, we're going to be OK."

That message can be taken right out of this one game and applied to the remainder of the season. Sure, the rest of the schedule still looks tough. The Washington Redskins are on fire, two games behind and awaiting the Giants at FedEx Field next Monday night. The Dallas Cowboys are right there with Washington, and with what looks to be the easiest of all the division's schedules left to play. But the Giants are the ones with the two-game lead. The Giants are the ones who know they can win in places like Green Bay and San Francisco in the biggest of games. The Giants are the team in the NFC East with the championship pedigree, and Sunday night's alarming message to the rest of the league was that they appear to remember that now.

"There was a different enthusiasm in practice this week, and it showed up in the game," said Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who threw three touchdown passes in the game after three straight games without throwing any and passed Phil Simms for the all-time franchise lead in that category.

Everything about the Giants looked different this week. They were nastier on the offensive line, opening huge holes for running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Andre Brown (before Brown left in the fourth quarter with what turned out to be a broken leg). They were more fearsome and determined on the defensive line, bringing pressure with the defensive ends and tackles as well as Kiwanuka up from linebacker and Chase Blackburn pressuring Rodgers from his middle linebacker spot. They were spry and nimble with their offensive formations, rotating receivers around to different positions, faking an end-around handoff to Hakeem Nicks before hitting Bradshaw with a 59-yard screen pass and working rookie Rueben Randle into the mix.

They were fresh, focused and emotionally fired up, in part because of a speech by 15-year-old Make-A-Wish recipient Adam Merchant, who'd cashed in his wish to be a part of the Giants' team this weekend and told the players on Friday night to "play like world champions."

"It would have been hard not to match that kind of intensity," Kiwanuka said of the effect Merchant had on the team.

The mission for the Giants now is to maintain that intensity over the next five weeks, and to do it they'll need to play as big up front as they did on both sides of the ball Sunday. Manning is going to be Manning, the receivers are going to be the receivers, and those reliable aspects of the passing game will continue to carry the Giants when they can. But when the Giants play like one of the very best teams in the entire league, it's because they're pushing people around on the offensive and defensive lines the way they were Sunday. Guys like left tackle Will Beatty and left guard Kevin Boothe were dominant against the Packers' defensive front, paving the way for 64 rushing yards from Brown and another 58 from Bradshaw.

"It just makes everybody on this team more comfortable if we can get that running game going," Bradshaw said.

It loosens things up in the passing game and gives the defense time to rest and refresh so it can go out and inflict pain on opposing quarterbacks. That's something the Giants haven't done with enough consistency this year, but they were determined to do it Sunday against Rodgers. They remembered sacking him four times in their playoff victory in Green Bay in January, and they knew they had to repeat that performance.

"Defensively, up front, we know we have the ability to affect every aspect of the game," Kiwanuka said. "We know we have to get it done up front for the rest of the team to feed off of us."

And that's what happened. After a shaky start in which Jordy Nelson got behind Corey Webster for a 61-yard touchdown, the defense locked in the rest of the way once the pass rush got going. Webster came back with a big interception later in the first half, and the Giants rolled in a way that reminded you of that whole January run. This is the way they look when they're at their best and most driven, and it reminds the rest of the league that, if there really does turn out to be a race this year in the NFC East, it'll only be because the Giants allowed that to happen.

"It reminds us what we're capable of, and that's all that matters," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "Yeah, we slipped a little bit, but we're refocused now, and hopefully we're done with the roller coaster and we can just excel."

They're the only team in the NFC East capable of doing that at this complete a level, and Sunday brought that reality back home for anyone who'd been wondering.

 

Rapid Reaction: Giants 38, Packers 10

November, 25, 2012
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A few thoughts on the New York Giants' overwhelming 38-10 victory over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night at MetLife Stadium.

What it means: The Giants' lead in the NFC East remains at two games over both the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys, which is obviously the most important thing. But if you believe in "statement" games, you have to admit the Giants made a statement with this victory. The Packers came in winners of five games in a row, re-establishing themselves as one of the NFC's best teams. The Giants had lost two straight prior to their Week 11 bye and had spent the past two weeks answering questions about their annual "November swoon" and the idea that the Redskins and Cowboys were closing in on them. A victory this convincing pushes a lot of those questions into the background for at least a week.

Making history: Former Giants quarterback Phil Simms may not consider Eli Manning one of the "elite" quarterbacks in the NFL, but Manning took something from Simms in this game. His third-quarter touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks was the 200th of his career, moving him past Simms and into first place on the all-time Giants touchdown pass list. Manning had not thrown a touchdown pass since Week 7, but he broke that drought with first-half strikes to Rueben Randle and Victor Cruz as the Giants built a 31-10 halftime lead. Interesting that Manning targeted Nicks more in this game than he targeted Cruz. Could indicate that Nicks' health has improved to the point where he'll be a larger part of the offense going forward.

Discount double-check: Pressuring Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was one of the keys to the Giants' playoff victory in Green Bay in January, and the Giants were able to do it again Sunday. They sacked Rodgers three times in the first half and five times in the game, and other than the first-quarter touchdown bomb to Jordy Nelson that tied the score at 7-7, Rodgers couldn't find time to find his receivers down the field. It was one of the most impressive performances of the year from the Giants' defensive front, which has struggled to get consistent pressure on opposing passers for much of the season. Osi Umenyiora had a sack and forced fumble that led to a touchdown late in the first half, Mathias Kiwanuka had two sacks and middle linebacker Chase Blackburn picked up a sack of his own and was a key part of the pressure packages.

Flip side: New York's offensive line had a big game too, opening holes for Ahmad Bradshaw and Andre Brown in the run game more reliably than they had at any point this season. The backs found particular success on the left side of the line, where Will Beatty has been playing very well at tackle and Kevin Boothe appeared to have a very good game at guard.

New kid: Randle's touchdown catch was the first of his career, and while he struggled with a couple of muffs on punt returns in the second half, he does appear to be getting more and more looks on offense as the season goes along. The Giants' second-round pick this year out of LSU, Randle can play on the outside and allow Cruz to work in the slot, where he is at his best.

But he just got back: Safety Kenny Phillips was active for the first time since Week 4, and his impact was obvious on both the run defense and the pass defense. But he left the game in the third quarter with an injury to the same right knee that had kept him out of the previous six games. If Phillips has to miss significant time again, the Giants' defense would surely suffer for his absence. ... Andre Brown also left the game in the fourth quarter with what the team described only as a "lower leg injury."

What's next: The Giants will travel to Landover, Md. next week to play the Washington Redskins on "Monday Night Football." The Redskins are 5-6, two games behind the Giants in the NFC East with five games to play. They lost a heartbreaker to the Giants at MetLife Stadium in Week 7 when Manning hit Cruz for a 77-yard touchdown pass in the final two minutes.

Halftime thoughts: Giants look fantastic

November, 25, 2012
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants appear to have done their homework during their bye week. Lackluster losers of two straight November games heading into their Week 11 bye, the Giants have come roaring out of the gates tonight to take a 31-10 lead over the Green Bay Packers at halftime. ESPN North blogger Kevin Seifert, seated to my right here in the MetLife Stadium press box, reports that the 31 points are the most any team has scored against the Packers in a game this season. To repeat, it is halftime.

What has gone right for the Giants? Just about everything. They have sacked Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers three times, and the third one came equipped with a forced fumble by Osi Umenyiora that set up Ahmad Bradshaw's 13-yard touchdown run in the half's final minute. They have a Corey Webster interception to go with the fumble. Eli Manning, who hadn't thrown a touchdown pass since Week 7, has thrown one each to Rueben Randle and Victor Cruz. Bradshaw has 56 rushing yards and Andre Brown 27 behind a fired-up offensive line that's blocking as well as it has in any game all season, and Bradshaw also picked up 59 on a screen pass on the Giants' first possession of the game.

Early on, when Jordy Nelson whipped Webster for a 61-yard touchdown pass to tie the score at 7-7 in the game's first five minutes, it looked as though this might be a shootout between two of the game's top offenses. But it has quickly swung the Giants' way. They looked energized and sharp, smoothly working their way in and out of various personnel groupings on offense and defense, and they appear to be confusing the Packers on both ends. Middle linebacker Chase Blackburn has one of the sacks and has been integral to the pressure they've been able to put on Rodgers. And Randle, the rookie second-round pick out of LSU, looks as though he might be developing into a reliable third wide receiver option. He is sometimes on the field even when Cruz is not, and his presence on the outside opposite Hakeem Nicks can enable the Giants to deploy Cruz in the slot, where he can get mismatches against linebackers and safeties.

The Packers are obviously never out of a game with Rodgers and all of their offensive weapons. But they're outmanned tonight with key players such as Greg Jennings, Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson out of the game with injuries. And if the Giants can keep the run game going the way it's gone so far, they should be able to control the clock enough in the second half to prevent a three-touchdown comeback. A Giants victory would keep their lead in the NFC East at two games over the Cowboys and Redskins with five games left in the season.

Jerry Jones thinks you're stupid

September, 25, 2012
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Jerry JonesRon Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT/Getty ImagesCowboys owner Jerry Jones says he didn't watch the end of the Packers-Seahawks game Monday.
Here it is, folks. Your NFL officials controversy in a nutshell. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, asked about the controversial ending to Monday Night's Packers-Seahawks game, said on the radio Tuesday morning that he didn't see it and hadn't heard about it. Per ESPNDallas.com:
"I didn't see that ending last night," Jones said on KRLD-FM. "I cut it off about halftime."

Jones said he hadn't received any phone calls about the controversy: "I just read a little note in the paper that the Seahawks pulled it out," he said, quickly switching the subject to praise Seattle's team.

...

Pressed further on the matter, Jones made his best sales pitch.

"We can have all kinds of what-ifs," Jones said. "We've played three games and we've got 16 to play. It's exciting. It gives us a lot to talk about on our shows that we have. But fundamentally, when I look at where the league is over the first three ballgames, it's great. Lot of competition."

That's it, right there. That's the NFL owners' stance. They don't care how ridiculous the proliferation their lockout of the officials makes them or their league look, because people are still talking about and watching the games. And that's why nothing that happens on the field with these replacement officials is going to change anything about the situation.

A couple of people have suggested that Jones' take on this might be different if it had been his team that had lost on the bad call. I do not believe it would. I think the owners have dug in on this, that they believe they are in the right and that what they are hoping to accomplish in terms of dictating and establishing work rules for their employees that are as beneficial as possible to their own bottom lines. I believe a conversation very much like this took place some months ago in a plush hotel banquet hall in Palm Beach, Fla.:

Hypothetical voice of reason (the commissioner, a fellow owner, a league PR rep, somebody): "OK, so another lockout. Second year in a row. This is what you guys want to do, right?"

NFL owners, including Jerry Jones: "You betcha!"

Hypothetical voice of reason: "OK, then. You know it's very likely that if we go ahead with these replacement officials, we're going to look really foolish, get ripped like crazy by media and our broadcast partners and a few of our teams are probably going to lose games we should have won. That's OK with you guys too?"

NFL owners, including Jerry Jones: "Well, is any of that going to affect TV ratings, attendance or advertising revenue?"

Hypothetical voice of reason: "Nope. Not one bit. We'll actually probably keep setting records for that stuff."

NFL owners, including Jerry Jones: "So, what was the problem again?"

Face it, the NFL's owners are fine with things the way they are and aren't about to change the way they're operating this situation. This is what they wanted, and they don't see anything wrong with the way it's working out. That's why Jones can come out and ask us to believe he didn't see the game and didn't get any calls about it. He and the rest of his fellow owners know you're going to keep buying their product no matter how they present it to you. So why should he act as though anything's wrong?
I was not surprised to read the comments by New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck regarding the comments by Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews. If you haven't been paying attention, Matthews said the Packers beat themselves in the divisional playoffs last year and effectively handed the Giants the game by playing poorly at the wrong time. Tuck responded thusly:
Tuck
"Thank you for giving us the game, Clay," Tuck deadpanned. "I appreciate it a lot."

"Did they play their best ball?" Tuck continued. "I don't know. But we won the football game. I don't think they gave us anything."

Of course they didn't. You can't lose a home playoff game by 17 points coming off a bye week and say, "We gave that one away." The reason the Packers (and the Falcons, and the 49ers, and the Patriots) didn't play their best games in the playoffs against the Giants was that the Giants were playing great. In any violent land-acquisition skirmish, a key to victory is finding ways to diminish the effectiveness of your opponent's attack and/or defense. I mean, did Napoleon just have a bad day at Waterloo, or did the Prussians have something to do with it?

Anyway, I found it funny because I remembered an exchange I had with Tuck while I was at Giants camp in Albany a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about the division, and I mentioned that it seemed as though a lot of people were going to pick the Eagles again this year.

"Good," he said. "I think the Eagles and the Cowboys should be the favorites. They're very talented. They have better offense than we have. They have better defense than we have. Their special teams are better. Their coaches are better. Their fans are better."

Yes, you can hear the sarcasm dripping from his words. Tuck made it clear that he's used to (and fed up with) analysis that underestimates the Giants and that any hype surrounding his division rivals is something he works hard to put out of his mind.

"I'm going to stop using the word 'hate,' because that got me in trouble the last time," Tuck told me. "Honestly, I don't know. I go about the game the way I go about the game. I don't worry about what the Eagles do. I don't worry about what the Cowboys do. They're both good football teams. The Redskins got better. They're good. But I'm going to take my group against anybody in the league, and that's just how I feel."

I know you guys want predictions from me, but I honestly don't know who I'm going to pick to win this division. It's either going to be the Eagles or the Giants. I just think the Cowboys are a notch behind them both and the Redskins are still not quite on that level. But I'm sincerely torn between the Eagles and the Giants. I think both of them will be better than they were in last year's regular season. Everywhere I go, NFL personnel people tell me the Eagles could be the best team in the league, and I feel as though it'd be easy to pick them. But the memory of the way they played in big spots last year, combined with the memory of what the Giants did after I spent the season underestimating them, gives me pause. So I'm taking the few weeks I have left to decide and hoping something happens to make it a bit clearer.

As I do ponder, though, I find both comfort and humor in the knowledge that, no matter who I pick, Justin Tuck isn't going to give a rat's rear end.

The NFC East: Living in the nickel

August, 9, 2012
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One big reason cornerback Terrell Thomas is important to the New York Giants is that the Giants really like to use defensive backs. The Giants learned earlier this week that Thomas' latest knee injury would not require surgery and that he should be able to play for them this year. This is good news, because with Aaron Ross having left via free agency and second-year cornerback Prince Amukamara still developing, the Giants need Thomas. Not just as the starter opposite Corey Webster, but in the nickel and dime defensive packages they used more than any other team in the league last year.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Giants used five or more defensive backs on 734 defensive snaps last year -- more than any other team in the league. That number accounted for 68.5 percent of their 1,072 defensive snaps. Only the Green Bay Packers went with five or more defensive backs on a higher percentage of their plays -- 69.0 percent, or 724 of 1,049.

I know this because our NFC North blogger, Kevin Seifert, recently did a post about how often the NFC North's teams were in nickel or dime packages last year, and he passed along the chart he got from ESPN Stats & Info showing how often each team in the league went with extra defensive backs. That's how things work on the ESPN.com NFL blog network. We're a team. A brotherhood. Eight pistons firing as one. It's really quite beautiful to watch sometimes.

Anyway, I looked at the chart and noticed that the NFC East's teams basically lived in nickel and dime defenses. Well, three of them at least. The Giants ranked second in the league in percentage of plays with five or more defensive backs. The Dallas Cowboys were fifth, at 59.5 percent. The Philadelphia Eagles ranked eighth, at 56.8 percent. And the Washington Redskins were the exception, ranking 24th at 43.9 percent.

The Redskins had injury issues at safety, didn't like the job Kevin Barnes was doing as their inside corner and have very good linebackers that they don't like to take off the field. But the other three teams in our division ... they love them some nickel.

Back to the Giants for a second. Just because they used extra defensive backs this much last year doesn't automatically mean they'll do it again. They're deeper and stronger at linebacker this year, and they didn't re-sign veteran safety Deon Grant. That means, if they go to those three-safety looks they've run the past couple of years, the third safety would have to be someone like Tyler Sash or Will Hill. With Thomas currently on the shelf, there's a chance they could ask safety Antrel Rolle to play the nickel corner position, but that's not ideal. Michael Coe is likely the next corner off the bench if Amukamara is pressed into a starting role, and while he's looked good in camp, he lacks experience. The Giants liked linebacker Jacquian Williams in coverage late last year and in the postseason, and it's possible they could design more packages this year that use just four defensive backs, since their 2012 strengths may lie elsewhere.

The Cowboys' ideal plan is to start Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne at cornerback with Orlando Scandrick and Mike Jenkins backing them up. Scandrick is good in the nickel spot, and overall this plan would give them enough depth to go to the nickel as often as they like. The issue right now, of course, is that Jenkins and Claiborne are hurt, and even if they expect those guys back for the start of the season, they're probably not getting to practice those nickel looks as much as they'd like to. Or at least, not with the personnel they'd prefer to use.

As for the Eagles, they're similar to the Giants in that they're stronger at linebacker this year and subtracted one of last year's starting corners when they traded Asante Samuel. With Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie as the starters, the nickel spot right now is likely to fall either to veteran Joselio Hanson or (more likely) rookie Brandon Boykin. Curtis Marsh has been getting a lot of work in camp and is the first option off the bench should one of the outside guys get hurt. And undrafted rookie Cliff Harris has a chance to make the team and add depth. Given the responsibility the Eagles' linebackers have for run support and gap control in the Wide 9, it's likely the Eagles will lean on their defensive backs as much as they did last year, and play as much nickel.

A lot of this depends on opponents, too. The Giants, Eagles and Cowboys all like to throw the ball a lot, so when they play each other they structure their defenses to stop the pass. And having teams like the Packers, Saints, Falcons, Steelers and Lions on the schedule, as NFC East teams do this year, can make teams go to the nickel more. But if we're basing it on last year alone, our teams like to use extra defensive backs as much as anyone in the entire league.

Giants-Packers opener seems likely

March, 22, 2012
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Kevin Seifert makes a good point about one likely ancillary consequence of the NFL's discipline of the New Orleans Saints -- that the Saints surely won't be the New York Giants' opponent in the Sept. 5 NFL season opener.

The league has, for some time now, been opening the season on a Thursday night at the home of the defending Super Bowl champions, and so this year's opener (which has been moved to Wednesday so as not to conflict with President Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention) will be at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

After the Giants won the Super Bowl, people began to speculate as to who the opponent would be for that game. I have always believed it would be the Green Bay Packers, since that's a matchup of the past two Super Bowl winners, a rematch of one of last year's NFC playoff games and would pit the Giants against a nationally recognizable team half of which appears in State Farm Insurance commercials.

Some people had thought it would be the Saints, who are one of the Giants' other scheduled home opponents this year. But in light of the bounty scandal, it's unlikely the league will give them that slot. And while it's always possible the game could be a marquee division matchup against the Dallas Cowboys, the Philadelphia Eagles or Robert Griffin III's Washington Redskins, I think Giants-Packers is the matchup that delivers the most national sizzle, and that's where my money would be if I were the sort of person who bet on such things. Which I am not.

Do Packers want Cullen Jenkins back?

January, 19, 2012
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With the New York Giants having bounced the Green Bay Packers out of their Super Bowl title defense Sunday, the what-went-wrong analysis has begun in earnest in Wisconsin. Jason Wilde has a story on ESPN Milwaukee in which some Packers players and coaches look back and wish they hadn't let defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins leave via free agency. Jenkins, as we know here on the NFC East blog, signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Eagles last offseason. Now, he's due a $5 million roster bonus in March, so if the Eagles decided for some reason they didn't want to pay that, it's possible he could be a free agent again, and Jason asked him if he'd want to return to Green Bay:
While it appears unlikely that the Eagles will let him go, Jenkins and his family still own their duplex in Green Bay. He said he watched his former team a lot during the season -- "It was hard not to because between the Packers and (Tim) Tebow, that was all that was on TV," he said -- but he sounded Wednesday like he had moved on with his life without the Packers.

Would he consider a return engagement in Green Bay if the opportunity arose?

"I'm going to stay away from even commenting on that one," Jenkins replied. "You kind of move on. Right now, I'm an Eagle, and that's my mindset. I'm going to continue to be an Eagle until they don't want me to be an Eagle anymore. That's my main focus right now. I'm not worried about any of the other ifs, ands or buts."

Any lingering personal regrets aside, it's really hard to imagine the Eagles deciding to part ways with Jenkins, who was one of their best and most consistent defensive players this season, and a rare voice of leadership in the locker room. Jenkins' coaches loved him. His teammates loved him. And he played extremely well.

You never know what kind of decisions are going to be made once it comes time to fit new players under the salary cap or commit long-term dollars to young stars like LeSean McCoy or even, I guess, DeSean Jackson. But if the Packers want Jenkins back, my guess is they're out of luck. The Eagles might have some regrets of their own from last offseason, but signing Jenkins isn't one of them.

Some encouraging numbers for Giants

January, 16, 2012
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Lovely day here at Milwaukee's General Mitchell Airport, though it was kind of sad listening to the Packers fans on the sports talk radio this morning on the drive here from Green Bay. Honestly, if you've ever been to Green Bay, you need to wonder: what do those people do now?

What we do now is look ahead to Sunday's NFC Championship Game between the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers. It's going to be a different kind of game for the Giants. The 49ers don't have the array of passing-game weapons that recent Giants opponents such as the Packers, Falcons and Cowboys have. They will attack the Giants differently, and the best thing the 49ers have going for them is a defense that looked fast, tough and terrifying for most of the game against the Saints on Saturday night.

San Francisco finished fourth in the league in total defense, allowing just 308.1 yards per game, and first in rush defense by a mile, allowing just 77.3 yards per game. That would seem to bode ill for a Giants team that finished last in the league in rush offense. But the numbers from the head-to-head matchup between these teams in San Francisco in Week 10, even though the Giants lost it, offer some hope for the Giants.

The 395 yards of total offense the Giants had against the 49ers was the fourth-highest total any team posted against San Francisco all season. Only the Eagles (513 in a Week 4 loss), Cowboys (472 in a Week 2 overtime victory) and Saints (472 in Saturday's playoff loss) had more yards in a game against the Niners this season.

Even more encouraging, the Giants had 93 rush yards in that game, which is the fourth-highest total of rush yards any team had in a game against the Niners this season. Marshawn Lynch's Seahawks had 124 in Week 16, Steven Jackson's Rams had 111 in Week 17 and LeSean McCoy's Eagles had 108 in that Week 4 game in Philadelphia. All of those games were victories for the 49ers, but the Giants have run the ball considerably better over the past seven weeks, and in the Week 10 game in San Francisco they did not have running back Ahmad Bradshaw, who was out with a foot injury at the time. Brandon Jacobs had 55 yards on 18 carries, and D.J. Ware kicked in 34 yards on nine carries.

A healthy Bradshaw on Sunday, plus the drastic improvements the Giants have made in run blocking over the past two months, plus the film they can watch of their offense having success against this very tough 49ers defense, are all assets for the Giants as they prepare for the NFC Championship Game. The 49ers likely aren't going to miss as many tackles as the Packers did Sunday, but the Giants have proof that they can move the ball against them anyway. The key, as it always is, will be to avoid the turnovers. The Giants outgained the 49ers by 90 yards in Week 10, but Eli Manning threw two interceptions, and they lost by seven points.

Coughlin is becoming a coaching Giant

January, 15, 2012
1/15/12
10:20
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Eli ManningAP Photo/Darron CummingsTom Coughlin has Eli Manning and the New York Giants just one win away from the Super Bowl.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Deep in the bowels of Lambeau Field on Sunday night, America's youngest 65-year-old practically bounced up to the podium, a grin creasing his famously red face as he broke down his latest huge coaching achievement.

When you push yourself as hard as Tom Coughlin pushes himself, you have to revel in nights like this. The New York Giants had just crushed the 15-1 Green Bay Packers 37-20 to move into the NFC Championship Game, and Coughlin finds himself in the middle of a postseason run every bit as delightfully surprising as the one on which he took the Giants four years ago.

"Just very happy," Coughlin said, and who can blame him? This is a remarkable coaching achievement he's pulled off. His team looked dead in the water just four weeks ago, sitting at 7-7 and in second place after a miserable home loss to the Redskins. The story in New York was about whether he would be fired if the Giants didn't make the playoffs, and the consensus seemed to be that the Giants would have little choice.

Four games and four victories later, such talk has turned preposterous. Coughlin, whose contract runs through 2012, has put himself in line for a multiyear extension. This run with this team is establishing him -- if he hadn't already done so -- as one of the elite head coaches in the game. If he wins his next two games, he becomes a two-time Super Bowl champion and, quite frankly, people are going to start to ask whether he belongs in the Hall of Fame.

"There's nobody outside of this room who believed we could get where we are right now," Giants left tackle David Diehl said. "You go back a month, and it was all, 'Should Coughlin be fired?' But he knew what we had here, and we knew what we had here, and we used all of that for motivation."

The mark of a great coach is his ability to identify the kind of team and the kind of players he has and coach accordingly. Bum Phillips famously said that what made Don Shula great was that "he could take his'n and beat your'n, or he could take your'n and beat his'n." Coughlin is of that school. At a time when so many coaches seem to be slaves to their own system, or seek to have control over roster construction, Coughlin sees his role more simply. His is not to mope and complain that the team didn't do more in free agency, or that defensive starters dropped like flies in the preseason. His is to figure out how to win with what he has. And as he did four years ago, when he tore through Dallas and Green Bay before taking out the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl, he has figured out how to push exactly the right buttons with a roster that didn't look playoff-caliber for most of this season.

"The way the leadership part works is, it starts with the coach," Giants safety Deon Grant said. "And what we have here is a coach who knows his team. He knows how to talk to the veterans in this locker room, when to challenge people, when to lighten up. You want a leader who believes in you, and in order to believe in you, he's got to know you."

[+] EnlargeTom Coughlin
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireNew York's playoff run is establishing Tom Coughlin as one of the league's elite coaches.
Coughlin knows his team. He knew, after that Redskins loss, that the way to approach the following week was to build his players up rather than tear into them. They have responded, and are playing with a champion's level of confidence at exactly the right time of year. No fewer than four players in their locker room said Sunday night, "I knew we were going to win this game," and every single one of them was convincing and sincere.

"We've got a lot of confidence right now," running back Ahmad Bradshaw said. "We've been here before, a lot of us, and we've been here together. And I think that helps us a lot."

This really is starting to feel like four years ago all over again, and the reason is the seasoned, even-keel performance of the leaders who keyed that playoff run. Eli Manning is playing quarterback at an incredibly high level, and Coughlin is delivering the right message during the week and projecting cool, experienced certainty during the games.

"Our coach is always consistent with his message," defensive lineman Chris Canty said. "That's a big deal, because it makes it easy to buy in. Confidence comes from demonstrated performance, and we have people in our building who have some pretty good records."

Sunday was Coughlin's sixth career playoff road win, one short of the all-time record held by a guy you may have heard of named Tom Landry. That's heady company, and it says a lot about the advantage Coughlin gives the Giants at this time of year. To have a coach who's not going to be surprised or thrown off by any situation, who has shown a sincere belief in you and earned your reciprocal belief in him -- that's the kind of stuff that allows a team to keep its head in intense playoff games.

"Success breeds confidence," Coughlin said. "And right now they're a pretty confident group."

That starts at the top, and while he would scoff at the notion, the fact the Giants are one of the final four NFL teams left standing is a direct result of one of the finest coaching jobs of Coughlin's fine coaching career.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A few thoughts on the New York Giants' 37-20 playoff victory over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday at Lambeau Field.

What it means: Well, it means the Giants are one game away from the Super Bowl. The defeated the 15-1 Packers on the Packers' home field and now get a chance to avenge another of their regular-season losses next week in San Francisco. It also seems to give credence to the theory that playing at playoff-level intensity in the weeks leading up to the playoffs can give a team an advantage.

Who are these guys?: These are not the same Giants that were losing four straight games to fall to .500 and into second place a little more than a month ago. We knew they were tough, and that Eli Manning was a fourth-quarter assassin. But during those tough November/December days, it did not appear as though the Giants had the manpower to win these kinds of games against these kinds of teams. They are healthier now, and they look as focused, driven and confident as any team left in the field. And they are a legitimate threat to bring home the fourth Super Bowl trophy in franchise history.

Discipline deep: The Giants looked lost in coverage in the first quarter, as they did for most of the season. But they tightened up in the second and made plays in the secondary all day when it counted. Green Bay helped out by dropping its share of passes, but Antrel Rolle led the way for a clearly fired-up Giants secondary, and for maybe the first time all year it looked as though the front four was feeding off what the guys on the back end were doing. Michael Boley got two sacks from the linebacker position as the Giants tried everything they could to get Aaron Rodgers to stop beating them with his legs. Most importantly, the Giants stayed disciplined in the secondary, so that even when they didn't break up the pass, there was a safety and/or a cornerback there to keep the gain from turning into a big, backbreaking one. It wasn't always pretty, but they did an excellent job of keeping the Packers' explosive offense in front of them, and they benefited as a result.

Winning the turnover battle: The Packers are plus-23 in the turnover category during the regular season. But the Kansas City Chiefs -- until Sunday, the only team to have beaten them -- didn't turn the ball over at all against them. And the Giants had a 3-1 turnover edge in Sunday's game. Manning threw an interception, but the Giants recovered three Green Bay fumbles to seize the edge in a category that routinely decides games in the NFL.

Who's No. 1?: Victor Cruz has been the headline-grabber in New York this year, and for good reason. But Hakeem Nicks showed everybody he's still the best wide receiver the Giants have. Nicks turned in the long catch-and-run that's becoming a Giants' staple -- a 66-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter. He caught the Manning Hail Mary in the end zone that gave the Giants a shocking 20-10 halftime lead. He finished with seven catches for 165 yards and made the biggest plays of the day.

Big plays at the right time: The Giants were 8-for-15 on third-down conversions for the game. The Packers were 6-for-11, which might have been the story if the game had swung the other way. But on this day, the Giants had the better offense.

What's next: The Giants will travel to San Francisco, where they will play the 49ers in the NFC Championship game at 6:30 pm ET. The winner of that game will advance to Super Bowl XLVI two weeks later in Indianapolis.

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