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Week 20 Picks: Conference Championships, Green Bay vs. New York

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Packers vs. Giants
Rushing Offenses, Defense Dictate Game

In the NFL playoff, a hot quarterback is like a hot NHL goalie. A quarterback that protects the ball, makes good decisions and leads an effective offense is like a brick-wall goalie who suddenly raises his level of play and lets almost nothing past him. Both give their teams excellent opportunities to win games.

When the New York Giants visit the Green Bay Packers, two hot quarterbacks take the field. New York's Eli Manning has been playing well for three straight weeks with Week 17 of the regular season played in a playoff atmosphere. Manning has a passer ratings of 118.6, 132.4 and 117.1, respectively, in his last three games after playing five straight with ratings below 90, including rounded ratings of 32, 34, 52, 63 and 88.

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New York Giants (12-6) @ Green Bay Packers (14-3)
Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wisc.
January 20, 6:30 p.m. (on Fox)

Green Bay's Brett Favre hasn't been exactly on that kind of a roll. Favre looked great against miserable Oakland in Week 14, followed by subpar efforts at St. Louis (80.6 rating) and at Chicago (40.2). He made a bit of a recovery against Detroit the last week of the season in limited action, but playing near perfect with a 143.8. Then last week in brutal cold and snow, Favre posted a 137.6.

Weather threatens to be a factor in Wisconsin again this week. Flurries are expected to taper in mid-afternoon and there should be breaks in the cloud cover, but forecasters said there should have been nothing but light flurries last week. Wind should be light, between 5 and 10 mph, and may have some "normal impact" on the passing game. More important, even that breeze is going to drop already frigid temperatures, which are forecast in the low single digits. Wind chills could drop as low as 10 degrees below zero.

(Click "Read More" to read the rest, vote in the poll and make your prediction.)

The big question is whether the Giants can maintain this level of play. Sure, lots of teams play consistently well, week in and week out, for long periods. But the Giants have been in some seriously physical games, and they've sustained injuries, and they've "left everything on the field." And they've played one game more than Green Bay.

Cornerback Kevin Dockery has been ruled out for the game, but he sat out last week against Dallas and played only sporadically against Tampa Bay. Starting corner Sam Madison remains questionable with an abdominal strain that's nagged him for weeks, as is another cornerback, Aaron Ross, who is nursing a shoulder injury.

Wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who has played through an ongoing ankle sprain, is also listed as questionable, but his limited participation hasn't adversely affected the Giants offense.

On the other side, well-rested Green Bay -- after "taking it easy" in Week 17 and relaxing during Wild Card weekend, the Packers coasted the second half against Seattle last week -- has only backup cornerback Will Blackmon listed as questionable and a handful of players listed with minor injuries.

Let's get back to those hot quarterbacks for a minute, and let's look at some of Manning's stats over the last three games. Against New England, he was 22 of 32 (68.8 percent) for 251 yards and 4 TDs. Against Tampa Bay, he was 20 of 27 (74.1 percent) for 185 yards and 2 TDs. And against Dallas, 12 of 18 (66.7 percent) for 163 yards and 2 TDs. In those three games, he threw just 1 interception at the end of the Patriots game.

But notice how the Giants have thrown less and less in those games. Of course, against New England, the only loss of the three, New York played from behind at the end, and they relied on the pass to bring them back. Against the Patriots, New York ran 52 offensive plays, 32 of them passes. But against Tampa, they ran the ball 30 times in 58 plays, and against Dallas, they ran it 23 times in 44 plays.

Also consider that the Giants ran fewer offensive plays than their opponents in all three games (a 71 to 44 deficit against Dallas), but they were nearly even against Tampa. This indicates (but far from empirically proves) that the Giants are a better team when they run the ball and are successful doing so. That seems to take pressure off Manning and makes their offense more effective overall.

Of their last three opponents and their opponent this week, the Packers are just in front of Tampa Bay in rushing defense. Dallas was 6th during the regular season, allowing just 94.6 yards per game, while New England was 10th, allowing 98.2. Green Bay was 14th, allowing 102.9. (For the sake of completeness, Tampa was 17th, allowing 107.9.)

In the passing game, Green Bay was just ahead of Dallas (13th), but lagging behind New England (6th) and Tampa Bay (1st). The latter is more evidence of how important the running game is to New York. Had they relied on Manning against the No. 1 pass defense, the outcome may have been different.

At this point, it shouldn't be surprising to find that New York was the No. 4 rushing offense during the regular season, but the 21st-ranked passing offense. Bottom line, as well as Manning has been playing, it all starts with the running game, and thus with the offensive line, one of the best in the business.

Again, no surprise, the Packers need to contain New York's running game and take some chances with Manning. Green Bay runs a 4-3 base defense, and it will be fully on the shoulders of that front four to control -- more than that, move the line of scrimmage. Not an easy task.

The Packers, who had the worst running game in the league in the first half of the season (seven games), turned on a dime halfway through the season with the acquisition (and use) of former Giant Ryan Grant. The Giants traded Grant to Green Bay after their last preseason game (against New England), but the Packers used him very sparsely until a Monday Night matchup at Denver.

Grant changed Green Bay's offensive philosophy and he notched five 100-yard games in 10 regular-season games. Then came last week.

Grant steamrolled Seattle, piling up 201 yards on 27 carries (7.4 yards per carry). And that was after fumbling twice in the first minute of the game.

New York's rushing defense ranked 8th during the regular season, four spots better than Seattle.

All season, Green Bay has better protected the football, turning it over 24 times -- 15 interceptions, just 9 fumbles. New York has 5 more of each. Green Bay's defensive numbers are almost exactly the same -- 4 more interceptions (for 19 total) and 9 fumble recoveries. New York had similar stats, 15 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries. That leaves Green Bay at +4 and New York at -8.

Both teams have been flagged 118 times (tied with Arizona for worst in the league). The Packers lost a league worst 908 yards on penalties, while the Giants were 5th-worst with 874.

Terry McAulay leads an "all-star" crew of officials.

"Frivolous" stat of the game: The Packers are 43-5 at home under Brett Favre when the kickoff temperature is 34 degrees or lower.

Prediction: Packers, 27-22.

Poll

Who will win the New York @ Green Bay conference championship game?

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    New York Giants
    (7 votes)
  • 82%
    Green Bay Packers
    (32 votes)
39 votes total Vote Now