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Packers-Giants: 5 things to watch

THE BASICS

The teams: The Green Bay Packers (15-1) vs. the New York Giants (10-7).

The time: 3:30 p.m. CST Sunday.

The place: Lambeau Field, Green Bay.

The TV coverage:  WITI (Ch. 6 in Milwaukee), WMSN (Ch. 47 in Madison) and WLUK (Ch. 12 in Green Bay).

The announcers: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in the booth with Pam Oliver reporting from the sidelines.

The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 69-35 (including 5-2 in the postseason) in his sixth season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. The Giants’ Tom Coughlin is 79-57 (including 5-3 in the postseason) in his eighth year as the Giants’ coach and 147-119 (including 8-7 in the postseason) in his 16th season as an NFL head coach.

The series:  The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series, 27-21-2, and also lead the all-time postseason series, 4-2. The Packers have won six of the last eight meetings, including a Dec. 26, 2010 victory at Lambeau Field that started their run to the Super Bowl XLV title, but the Giants won the most recent postseason meeting, in the 2007 NFC Championship Game.

The journey:  The Giantswon the NFC East by beating the Dallas Cowboys in the final game of the season to finish 9-7, then beat the No. 5 seeded Atlanta Falcons last Sunday, 24-2. The Packers earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC with a 15-1 record, good for the NFC North title and a first-round bye. Their lone loss in the last 22 games was at Kansas City on Dec. 18.

The rankings: The Packers’ third-ranked offense was No. 27 in rushing and No. 3 in passing during the regular season. Their 32nd-ranked defense was No. 14 against the run and No. 32 against the pass. The Giants’ eighth-ranked offense was No. 32 in rushing and No. 5 in passing. Their 27th-ranked defense was No. 19 against the run and No. 29 against the pass.

The line:  The Packers are favored by 7.5 points.

The injury report: PACKERS: Doubtful –  LB Robert Francois (hamstring). Probable –  WR Randall Cobb (groin), G Evan Dietrich-Smith (illness), LT Chad Clifton (hamstring, back), RT Bryan Bulaga (knee), WR Greg Jennings (knee), RB James Starks (ankle).

GIANTS: Out –  LB Mark Herzlich (ankle). Probable –  RB Ahmad Bradshaw (foot, back), CB Aaron Ross (concussion), DE Osi Umenyiora (ankle, knee), RB Danny Ware (concussion), S Deon Grant (quadriceps), CB Corey Webster (hamstring), RB Da'Rel Scott (knee).

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

Redemption song:  It has not been a good year for the Packers defense. They can point to their middle-of-the-road scoring defense (No. 19 in the NFL at 22.4 points per game) or their No. 1 ranking in takeaways (37), but the fact of the matter is, the unit has fallen off precipitously from coordinator Dom Capers’ first two years, when the group finished ranked No. 2 in 2009 and No. 5 last year in total defense. The Packers were also No. 1 against the run two years ago and No. 2 in scoring defense last year.

This year, while there may have been mitigating circumstances, the group simply hasn’t played as well, and unless the defense plays better in the postseason, the dream of back-to-back Super Bowl championships could go up in smoke, no matter how good the Green Bay offense may be.

“We put the film out there and it’s unflattering film. Right now, this game coming up can start the second season,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “What we do now is what everybody’s going to remember. I’m not going to make an excuse for how we’ve played. We’re just trying to fix it.”

If they can get it fixed – and fixed would entail generating more of a pass rush, not giving up so many big plays and stopping the run more consistently – then a Super Bowl XLVI berth is within reach.

“You look at the Pittsburgh Steelers, the No. 1 defense in the league and they're home for the second round,” defensive tackle B.J. Raji said.. That's shows you stats don't mean too much."

Book of Eli:  After tossing 25 interceptions last season, Coughlin and Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride made it a priority to get quarterback Eli Manning to cut down on his INTs. They succeeded: This season, Manning threw only 16.

“We’ve spent an entire preseason and regular season again doing nothing more than trying to improve that particular area. 2010 wasn’t very good to us in that regard, so we’ve spent an awful lot of time and emphasis on that particular area of our game, and we’ve done a pretty good job with that,” Coughlin said. “Now and again we’ve had our issues, but by and large it’s been something that first and foremost is on the mind of all of us, and we’ve done a better job of it.”

Facing the NFL’s top interceptors (31 in the regular season, including one on Manning on Dec. 4 that Clay Matthews returned for a touchdown), Manning will have to continue to avoid turnovers for the Giants to spring the upset. That’s what he did in the 2007 NFC Championship Game, in which he didn’t throw an INT. In last Sunday’s win over Atlanta, Manning was 23 for 32 for 277 yards and three touchdowns.

"I don't know if it was (Giants defensive end) Justin Tuck, or one of those guys who said 'You can't spell elite without the E-L-I.' I thought that was pretty intelligent there,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “He's played great, for the majority of his career, especially the last five, six years he's been at the top of his game. It's fun to watch. He throws the ball efficiently, he has good feel in the pocket, he's a winner, he's consistent. He's playing great, which makes it difficult for our defense. Offensively, you've got to expect them to play well and us to need to score some points."

Men on the run:  Talk about your misleading statistics: The Giants finished the regular season with the NFL’s worst rushing attack, both in terms of yards per game (89.2) and yards per rush (3.5). But that wasn’t the case in their loss to the Packers on Dec. 4, when the Giants carried 20 times for 100 yards (5.0-yard average), or in their NFC Wild Card victory over the Atlanta Falcons last Sunday, when they rushed for 172 yards (5.5-yards per carry.

The old tandem of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw was particularly effective against the Falcons’ undersized front, as Jacobs carried 14 times for 92 yards and Bradshaw ran 14 times for 63 yards. Both broke off big runs, too – Jacobs a 34-yarder and Bradshaw a 30-yarder.

“The No. 1 priority with this team is stopping the run. You have to because if you don’t stop the run, it sets up the big play,” said Packers run-stuffing defensive tackle Ryan Pickett, who returned after missing two games with a concussion to play in the regular-season finale against Detroit. “They can play-action and draw everybody up and beat us over the top easily. Just watching tape, they feed off the run. You watch Jacobs, he’s emotional, and Bradshaw. When they make a big play, it’s like a domino effect, and then everybody just starts making big plays. It’s big for us to stop ’em.”

Avoiding explosions:  When Pickett talks about big plays, he knows the Packers have had firsthand experience. In the Dec. 4 game, the Giants had pass plays of 67, 51 and 42 yards.

Those explosions were consistent with a defense that gave up the second-most plays of 20 yards or more this season (71) in the league.

“You’ve got to not give them the big plays over the top. You’ve got to make them work for things,” Capers said. “You’ve got to be able to, at some point in time, find a way to disrupt the quarterback to where you can come away with a couple takeaways. Eli doesn’t take many sacks. He’s going to get rid of the ball.”

While part of the Packers secondary’s problem was the lack of pass rush in front of it, a greater issue was that cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Sam Shields did not play anywhere near the level they played at last year, when both had game-clinching or game-turning interceptions in playoff games.

“Tramon had a rare streak there of six games the latter half of the season last year. There’s not many guys that have those kind of runs,” Capers said. “There were parts of the season (this year) where Tramon has played like he did last year coming up and making interceptions, passes defended at key times. Through the playoffs last year, when we needed a critical play, Tramon was there to make it. I don’t have any reason to think he can’t do the same thing starting this week.”

Five alive:  Ever since right tackle Bryan Bulaga went down with a knee injury at Chicago on Sept. 25, the Packers haven’t been able to start their preferred starting five on the offensive line – left tackle Chad Clifton, left guard T.J. Lang, center Scott Wells, right guard Josh Sitton and Bulaga – for a single snap. Even when Clifton returned on Jan. 1 to play 25 snaps for the first time since tearing his hamstring on Oct. 9 at Atlanta, Bulaga was sidelined again by a different knee injury.

That’ll all change on Sunday, when the preferred five are set to start against the Giants’ vaunted front four, which has accounted for 41.5 of the Giants’ 48 sacks on the season.

“It's our first time since (Week 3) that we've all been healthy. With Bryan back and Chad back, those guys are very good players,” said Lang, who filled in at right tackle for Bulaga at the end of the regular season. “We know it's going to be another challenge this week, like it was the first time we played those guys. I think we're up for the challenge. We've done a good job the past couple games. We're going to have to keep improving, keep taking those steps in keeping Aaron clean and let him do what he does best so he can make some plays.”

The Giants, who finished tied for third in the NFL in sacks, are led by All-Pro end Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5 sacks), but he’s only the beginning. Osi Umenyiora (nine sacks) and Justin Tuck (five) are also threats, and the Giants sometimes go with four defensive ends on the field with that threesome plus ex-Packers draft pick Dave Tollefson. The Giants seldom blitz because they don’t need to, so it’ll be up to the Packers’ line to keep Rodgers upright so he can exploit a shaky secondary.

“They have a good rotation of pass rushers. Most teams only have one, two good pass-rushing defensive ends. They have four, and then they have those defensive ends that kind of play inside,” Sitton said. “It’s a challenge for us.”

THE PREDICTION

One of the teams getting all the attention in the NFC playoff picture, the New Orleans Saints, saw their season come to an end Saturday afternoon at San Francisco, meaning the winner of this one will face the 49ers next Sunday for a trip to Super Bowl XLVI. The other chic pick has been the Giants, whose three-game winning streak has been compared to the 2010 Packers’ hot-at-the-right-time Super Bowl run and the ’07 Giants’ ability to catch lightning in a bottle as well. While there are reasons to worry about the Packers’ defense, the guess here is the better team wins – and that team is the Packers. Packers 31, Giants 21. (Season record: 12-4.)

– Jason Wilde