Despite lifting the New York Giants to a Super Bowl win in 2007, the football world didn't fully accept Eli Manning among the game's elite. In fact, Giants fans were often the first to criticize him for being inconsistent. However, a stellar showing this year has made it increasingly difficult not to count him as one of the top players at his position. An increasingly self-assured Manning even went as far as to proclaim himself Tom Brady's equal this year -- a position that will prove even harder to refute if the Giants knock off the Packers.
In the years since that improbable victory, the younger Manning has been a consistently solid force. He's never missed a start (since taking over in 2004) and has been named to two Pro Bowls. But, he also hasn't won a playoff game since, and last season, he threw 25 interceptions and struggled down the stretch while New York missed the postseason for the second straight year. His almost exaggeratedly boring demeanor during games irritates a passionate fan base that perhaps misinterprets his shrugged shoulders and calmness for disinterest.
After what was by far his best season as a pro and a thrashing of a hot Atlanta team last Sunday though, Eli has proved himself all over again. His three touchdown passes were three more than he'd ever thrown at home in the playoffs before and with the 24-2 win, he also notched his first-ever home playoff victory.
Perhaps it would be just as lofty a statement to compare this current Big Blue team to 2007, but it's hard not to at least acknowledge some of the similarities.
Aside from Manning's greatness, we are witnessing the rebirth of a defensive line that hasn't been this dominant in five years. Back then, Justin Tuck was the new kid on the block emerging as a menacing beast on the outside. He was flanked by Osi Umenyiora and the elder statesman in his final year, Michael Strahan. The new kid on the block now is clearly Jason Pierre-Paul, only in his second season but already an All-Pro selection. While the injury-laden Umenyiora isn't at the level of old, he and Tuck present a formidable pass-rushing presence that tied for second in the league in sacks and helped keep Falcons' quarterback Matt Ryan from ever developing a rhythm in Sunday's win.
The other interesting element to this team right now is the play of Brandon Jacobs, the massive running back who has run more like the Pillsbury Doughboy over the past couple seasons than the bruising force we had grown accustomed to seeing. But over the past month or so, Jacobs has come alive. He is running much harder and attacking defenders as opposed to going down after first contact. Against Atlanta, he amassed 47 yards in such situations, according to ESPN Stats & Information, finishing with 92 yards on just 14 carries. One of Manning's most lethal weapons is the use of play-action; if Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw continue to run effectively, he will have his fair share of shots down the field with Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz.
Speaking of taking downfield shots, no team this season has been more consistently dominant than the Green Bay Packers. At 15-1, they have the best quarterback in the league, excellent receivers, a fantastic pass rush and an all-pro cornerback. Even still, are we safe to assume that no 15-1 team in the history of the game has ever been this vulnerable either?
The Packers -- without injured safety Nick Collins since September -- have the worst pass defense in the NFL, giving up 300 yards per game. They have a pair of young corners in Tramon Williams and Sam Shields who are very talented but equally green and at times undisciplined as well.
For all the talk of home-field advantage at Lambeau Field, this is a Green Bay team that actually is not built to win in super cold weather. Aaron Rodgers will throw upwards of 35 times per game because the rushing tandem of James Starks and Ryan Grant has been ineffective throughout the year, ranking 27th in yards per game. Because neither is a burner, the lack of a home run threat can allow New York to vary more blitz schemes and coverages, something that defensive coordinator Perry Fewell did with great success against the Falcons.
The Packers have been the superior team in either conference this season; there is not an argument that can be made against that. But the Giants are the one team built to beat them at Lambeau because they are so balanced right now on the offensive side of the ball. Rodgers will try early and often to exploit what has been a suspect secondary since Week 1 and he has the tools around him to do so, but if New York can control tempo with the run, they will have a shot to pull off the mammoth upset.
Then, a fully validated Eli Manning can say he beat the NFL's best quarterback ... in his own house.
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