Thursday, January 17, 2008

King of The Frozen Tundra-NFC Championship Preview

We heard the stories, saw the lowlights, and witnessed the frustration on his face. He was washed up. The game had passed him by. Touchdown numbers were declining, while the number of interceptions were rising. His indecision on retirement was viewed as a man holding a franchise hostage. It was time to turn the page on an NFL legend, and allow our pens to flow the fresh ink of Aaron Rodgers. But 2007 revealed all that was unseen or forgotten, the heart, desire, and leadership that makes an aging NFL quarterback timeless. Surviving the scrutiny and criticisms of season's past, Brett Favre, the King of the frozen Tundra, now finds himself one Lambeau leap away from another Superbowl appearance.

New York Giants (10-6) at Green Bay Packers (13-3)
NFC Championship Game

Just as the AFC championship features a rematch of teams that met earlier in the season, the NFC gives us the same. And just like the AFC, the earlier meeting turned out to be lopsided, as the Packers routed the Giants by a score of 34-13. This time there is a venue change, and the Packers will be the frigid host to the traveling Gmen. The Giants are proven road warriors, winning 9 consecutive outings away from East Rutherford, but a January Green Bay playoff game will represent their stiffest test to date.

For the Giants, the road to the NFC title game went through Tampa Bay and Dallas. And as bumpy as the ride may have been, they managed to stay on their feet to reach the frozen sod of Lambeau Field. The Packers defended their home, overcoming mistakes and an early Seahawks lead, before literally running Seattle out of town. Now, two that stared from a distance, find themselves eye to eye, with the same visions and dreams of punching their ticket to the Superbowl.

Green Bay Offense: The early season knock against Green Bay was the lack of production in the running game. Though they continued to win games, most believed their inability to move the ball on the ground would eventually lead to playoff failure. Ryan Grant eventually emerged as that much needed ball carrying force, falling just shy of 1000 yards on the season, and plowing through the snow for 201 yards in last weekend's playoff victory against Seattle. When your back is averaging 5.1 yards per carry for the season, I'd say you've silenced the early criticisms and found a running game.

After throwing for 20 TDs and 29 picks in 2005, followed by 18 Tds and 18 INTs in '06, Brett Favre bounced back to throw for 28 scores and 15 interceptions in 2007. Despite two years of harsh criticism, Favre leads the NFL's 2nd ranked offense, averaging 370 yards a game, which is just 40 yards less than Tom Brady's patriots. As always, a favorite target, and one of the most dangerous after the catch, is Donald Driver. But not to go unnoticed, Greg Jennings has made the most of the attentiveness to his star teammate, and has capitalized with over 900 receiving yards of his own.

Green Bay Defense: The physical play of the Packers defense allows them to be somewhat more than their numbers indicate. The unit ranks 12th against the pass (207 yards per game) and 14th against the run (109 yards per game). It's old school defensive play, which includes jamming receivers and bumping routes. The pass rush doesn't represent anything fierce, but is efficient, and will force every yard gained to be completely earned.

New York Offense: Everyone expected to see a Manning in a conference championship game, but no one expected it to be Eli. After spending years in the shadow of his older brother, Eli Manning now steps into this game, and into the shadow of the opposing Brett Favre. It appears the Giants have made adjustments in the offensive passing game, which has reduced Manning's early season struggles and produced late season success. With the inconsistent play of the offensive line, the Giants are showing fewer 5 step drops and pocket collapses, and the more efficient and quick striking 3 step play calling. The ageless Amani Toomer provides support to a receiving corps headlined by Plaxico Burress, and their production will be key to softening a Packer defense to create more running lanes.

The Gmen lost a key piece to the offense, when Jeremy Shockey went down to injury, but a healthy rookie receiver, Steve Smith, has risen in the playoffs and provided some key receptions. As always, Manning is supported by a strong running attack. Surrounded by questions, after the departure of Tiki Barber, Brandon Jacobs gave the answer, going over 1000 yards on the season, and appearing as a force in the backfield.

New York Defense: The strength of the Giants is on the defensive side of the ball, and it was displayed in their playoff victory over the Cowboys, as they held the league's 4th ranked offense to 17 points, including just 3 in the second half. Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora look to wreak havoc in opposing backfields and have compiled 23 sacks between them. The prognosis on CB Aaron Ross is "probable", and his services will be needed. This Giants secondary allowed Favre to go 18 of 21 for 147 yards in second half of the first meeting. Healthy bodies in the unit will be necessary to avoid a replay.

Analysis: The Packers will be facing a Giants team that has a different look, which won't make round two as easy. Those earlier Giants struggled with discipline issues, making costly mistakes that hurt their chances. The earlier Giants also didn't see Michael Strahan in season form, after spending the preseason away from the sidelines with a contract hold out. Eli Manning has experienced a season of maturity, and the team as a whole has learned to set aside personal battles, and those with the media, to focus and battle the upcoming opponents.

Both team styles appear built for the Wisconsin elements. There's isn't the flash and flare of wide open passing games. It's a sound running attack supported by smash mouth defense. It's a legend of the game versus a possible legend to be made. Favre vs. Manning, and men vs. the elements. It's throwback football at Lambeau Field. It's the NFC Championship game. It's the Giants and the Packers.

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