The first (and maybe last) postseason game

Green Bay, winners of its last six games, hosts the New York Giants in both teams’ first, and possibly last game in the wonderful world of the one-and-done NFL postseason.

Why will the Packers win, and not just today? Dieter Kurtenbach gives three reasons:

Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers did exactly what the quarterback and MVP candidate said they would do — ran the table in the final six games of the 2016 season — and because of that they’re NFC North champions and will host a first-round playoff game Sunday.

No team goes into the playoffs with more momentum than the Pack — here’s why they’ll carry that momentum through the next four games this postseason and win Super Bowl LI:
Aaron Rodgers

Enough said.
Rodgers was otherworldly in the final seven games of the 2016 season, throwing 18 touchdown passes with no interceptions over that stretch, in which the Packers won their last six games of the season to finish 10-6 on the year.

The Packers’ passing game is in perfect harmony right now — Jordy Nelson is back to being one of the NFL’s finest receivers, and there seems to be a new standout secondary option every week (who saw Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison coming?).

Who is going to stop it?

Some of the best defenses in the NFL have been exposed by Rodgers in recent weeks — the Vikings were torched for four touchdowns (zero picks) and a 136 quarterback rating, the Seahawks were hit with a 3-0 performance (QB rating 150), and the Texans, who boast arguably the top defense in the whole league, allowed only two touchdowns and a 108 QB rating.

Rodgers’ worst game down the stretch was against the Bears — you might recall that he threw a 60-yard pass in the final minute to set up a game-winning 32-yard field goal as time expired and had two earlier perfect passes dropped in the end zone. That was not a bad day.

Rodgers is on a roll, and if he can get past the New York Giants’ defense in the Wild Card Round, there’s no reason to think that any team — even the Seahawks, Patriots or Chiefs — is going to slow him down this postseason.

Offensive balance, at long last

A big part of Rodgers’ exceptional play as of late has been the emergence of a viable run game in Green Bay.

Who would have thought a wide receiver — a third-round draft pick in his second year — would be the game changer the Packers needed to make the postseason?

After a woeful midseason for the running game following Eddie Lacy’s injury, Ty Montgomery has averaged more than 60 yards per game in his last five contests on fewer than 10 carries per game.

The Packers don’t need a massive contribution from the run game — the passing game is more than capable of carrying the heavy load — but the balance and threat that has been presented by No. 88 (seriously) out of the backfield in recent weeks, alongside fullback Aaron Ripkowski and free agent pickup Christine Michael, has opened up more channels and lanes for Rodgers to exploit.

Montgomery is the outside-the-tackles runner — the big-gain threat — and Michael and Ripkowski have come on in recent weeks as more inside zone runners.

It might not be the most-used rushing attack, but it is certainly versatile, and behind one of the best offensive lines in football it is viable.

Did we mention Aaron Rodgers?

But it all comes back to this man. The Packers’ defense isn’t stellar and it’s all sorts of banged up — safety Micah Hyde might be the team’s No. 2 cornerback for the Wild Card game — but defensive coordinator Dom Capers has done an exceptional job of putting the Packers in a position, week in and week out, to win.It’s not because they’re holding teams to paltry point totals — they’re just holding them below what Rodgers can put on the board.

There isn’t a team in the NFL that’s truly exceptional on both sides of the ball this year — the Cowboys, Patriots, Steelers, Falcons, and (to a degree) Seahawks have questions on the defensive side of the ball this postseason, and the Chiefs, Giants, and Texans might not be able to muster the offense necessary to beat Green Bay’s.

It’s all about A-Rod, and so long as he’s playing exceptional football, the Packers have a puncher’s chance at winning any game they play.

Don’t get too excited, because Fox Sports apparently wrote a bunch more “3 Reasons” for all the other teams still in the playoffs, including, yes, the Giants.

My concern about the Packers’ postseason future is not with Rodgers or the offense — the Packers were fourth in scoring offense and eighth in offensive yardage this season — but the defense. It could be argued that defense as longtime football fans understand it is largely absent during the regular season. That is certainly not the case during the postseason. The Packers were 21st in the NFL in scoring defense (the only defensive statistic that matters), 22nd in yardage given up, and 29th in yards per play. (If you give up, as the Packers did, 5.9 yards per play, the next play after first down is a second-and-4, and there are all kinds of plays for second and medium distance.)

The Packers were 21st in the NFL in scoring defense (the only defensive statistic that matters), 22nd in yardage given up, and 29th in yards per play. (If you give up, as the Packers did, 5.9 yards per play, the next play after first down is a second-and-4, and you can call every play in your playbook for second-and-4.) Their defensive backfield has more injured players than healthy players, which poses a major problem for the Packers.

The Giants had the second best scoring defense in the NFL this season, giving up just 17.8 points a game. That’s their good news. Their bad news is that they were 26th in scoring, just 19.4 points per game, and 25th in offensive yardage, despite having two-time Super Bowl quarterback Eli Manning under center.

According to Steve Serby, the Giants’ hopes rest on Manning:

The good people here in Titletown, USA, wouldn’t want any quarterback defending Lambeau Field when the playoffs begin Sunday other than Aaron Rodgers.

Nevertheless, it is likely that even the ghosts who inhabit the storied place, from Vince Lombardi on down, will feel a knot in the pit of their stomach at the sight of the one quarterback who owns old Lambeau in January and relishes turning it into a green-and-gold burial ground on his way to the Super Bowl.

The man named Eli Manning.

They have heard he is not the same quarterback, not at 36. They know he has trouble putting 20 points on the scoreboard, and yet the memory of how this quarterback left Brett Favre frozen in despair nine years ago, then discount double-checked Rodgers five years ago haunts them.

Manning can’t extend plays the way Rodgers can. He can’t unleash accurate missiles from any angle. It is comforting to the good people of this so-called drinking town with a football problem that Giants coach Ben McAdoo can’t find any kryptonite for Rodgers.

But what if Packers coach Mike McCarthy has no kryptonite either, and the sequel to this movie turns out to be SuperMann III?

What if there really is a Playoff Eli? What if the magnitude of the moment ignites whatever greatness is left inside Manning? You don’t get to be a two-time Super Bowl MVP by luck, right? What if he can flip that switch?

Why is there an undying loyalty to him among all Giants and an unflinching belief that this is his time? Is it because he is capable of changing everything with one deadly slant to Odell Beckham Jr.? Is it because “defense wins championships” means Manning won’t be forced to bear the burden of a shootout with Rodgers? Is it because he was still quarterback enough to find a way to win 11 times and may now have a running game to aid and abet him?

You ask Victor Cruz what he is expecting from Manning and this is what he tells you:

“His greatness. He understands that this is a moment, this is a time where his best is expected. And I think he’s always risen to the challenge and we understand that, and we’re right there with him. We want to play our best football for him, and he wants to play for us. So I expect nothing but the very best out of Eli this weekend.”

Manning has waited five years for this chance. He has had two offensive coordinators and two daughters since the last time he broke cheesehead hearts, and Tom Coughlin won’t be red-faced on the sidelines with him this time.

“He’ll never show it because his name’s Eli Manning, but he’s very excited,” Cruz said. “You can tell in his preparation and the things that he does, that he’s ready to get after it, man, he’s ready to go. So we just gotta be ready to go right with him.”

They know that Manning will not be nervous in crunch time.

“You like being down four when you know you have to score a touchdown to win the Super Bowl,” Manning said after engineering the game-winning TD drive in Super Bowl XLII to beat the unbeaten Patriots.

There have been disturbing red zone interceptions and questionable decision-making this season, and Manning will have to be efficient against Rodgers.

“We know we gotta put up points,” Rashad Jennings said.

How many points?

“We at least gotta be in the 20s … upper,” he told The Post.

That may be asking too much. Or maybe it won’t be. What if Manning suddenly remembers he is the guy who beat Tom Brady twice in the Super Bowl?

This was what Coughlin said after Manning outplayed Favre in the 2007 NFC Championship game: “He just willed himself to play well.”

This was what Coughlin said after Manning outplayed Rodgers in the 2011 Divisional playoff round: “I think it is his mentality. It is his approach. Nobody sees what he does behind the scenes. He is a studier and a pounder.”

And still is.

“He’s always been a leader in the playoffs. He’s been efficient in the playoffs. He’s always stepped up and made big plays in the playoffs,” Jennings said. “So it’s good to have somebody who’s been there that’s gonna touch the ball every play. That gets everybody in the right positions. Our leader is somebody who manages the football. We’re gonna rally around him.”

Eli Manning is the last quarterback the Packers wanted to see out here. He is the only one who can be typecast for the lead role in SuperMann III.

Asked if there is a Playoff Eli, Dwayne Harris said, “There is a playoff Eli.” Then he laughed and said, “And everybody’s seen him.”

This game will interestingly feature both teams’ strengths — the Packers’ offense and the Giants’ defense — and weaknesses on the field at the same time. When the Giants have the ball, it may look like a resistible force against a movable object, unless Playoff Eli shows up. In that case, the Packers’ season will end today, leading to an offseason with questions about who the Packers’ general manager will be next season, with GM-in-waiting Eliot Wolf possibly headed to San Francisco and GM Ted Thompson reportedly stepping down to prevent that from happening.

 

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