The Giants face undefeated powerhouse in the regular season, fare better than anyone expects, nearly win the game, lose 38-35, and walk away feeling emboldened.
Four years ago, the Giants pushed the New England Patriots to the limit in the regular season before shocking them in the Super Bowl. Now it's a rematch with the Green Bay Packers, this time in an NFC divisional playoff at Lambeau Field (where the 2007 Giants decked Brett Favre and the Pack in the NFC Championship Game).
Tom Coughlin's 2011 Giants have many similarities to the '07 squad, particularly a defense that gives quarterbacks fits. Defensive ends line up on the inside, tackles pop up on the outside, linebackers act as down linemen and then drop back again. It's all in the name of pressure -- or the appearance of pressure.
To see the Giants' defense the last three weeks -- dominating the Jets, Cowboys and Falcons -- is to see a unit playing its best at the right time. Shutting out the talented Atlanta offense was the shocker of wild-card weekend (non-Tebow division). The Giants' pass rush can cover many ills, notably a secondary trying to cope with injury. With veterans like Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Chris Canty and Mathias Kiwanuka -- and a hungry youngster like Jason Pierre-Paul -- forcing Aaron Rodgers into rushed and uncomfortable throws is the only way the Giants can truly mimic their run from four years ago.
Both players take calculated risks, Manning trying to fit passes into small spaces for big gains, Woodson trying to jump routes to turn interceptions into touchdowns. Manning has never played better than now. He declared himself an elite quarterback before this season and backed it up by throwing for a career-high 4,933 yards, leading the Giants through taut fourth quarters with aplomb.
Four years ago, nobody knew Manning had the calm to win three road playoff games and a Super Bowl as a two-touchdown underdog. Now, his cool demeanor is expected. Manning trusts his receiving corps to make plays, Hakeem Nicks with strength, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham with speed.
Dom Capers trusts Woodson enough to line him up anywhere on the field. Woodson excels both in space and traffic, knocking passes down or snatching them away. (He had seven interceptions this season.)
Manning has become the Giants' strength on offense. Woodson has long been the Packers' strength on defense. Strength versus strength.
While largely unchanged from last season's Super Bowl champions (though losing safety Nick Collins hurt), the Packers have occasionally sprung leaks on defense, making the kinds of mistakes that lead to big plays. "When you give up a big play, somebody might miss a tackle or blow a coverage," says Packers defensive end Ryan Pickett. "We are normally a good tackling team. We know how to do it."
The return of the 340-pound Pickett, who sustained a concussion on Dec. 11 against Oakland, will help.
Even with the Packers offense scoring so many points -- and often quickly -- the Green Bay defense can't afford to break down in the postseason when a missed tackle can be the difference between advancing and going home.
The bruising Jacobs looked rejuvenated against the Falcons, getting his pad level lower than it has been all season. He seemed to relish the contact, while the Falcons defenders seemed to be looking for the nearest exit. And how's this for balance? Jacobs had 14 carries for 92 yards, while the shifty Bradshaw had 14 carries for 63 yards. Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride has his unit clicking. Green Bay's defense must deal with the changeups and be at its tackling best.
As well as Rodgers played in 2010, it is remarkable how much better he was this season. What does he have in store for 2012?
The Packers were a No. 6 seed a year ago. They sprinted through the playoffs with a devil-may-care attitude. As a top seed chasing back-to-back titles, this could be a heavier lift, if only because everybody expects them to win. Playoff runs are fraught with peril, especially for a defending Super Bowl champion. (Only the New England Patriots went back to back in the 2000s). How will the Packers fare with a target squarely on their back? The guess here is just fine, with Greg Jennings back in the fold.