Both teams must recover from tough circumstances quickly this week and get back on the right track, or their NFC playoff bids could be out the window.
For the Packers, they’ve lost three out of four games for the second time this season, and all six losses have come by either three or four points. Meanwhile the Giants have to bounce back from a fourth-quarter meltdown that saw NFC East rival Philadelphia rally from a 21-point deficit with four touchdowns in the final 7½ minutes last Sunday.
Bouncing back from adversity is part of what makes these players the pros that they are. But doing so at the same time the season is on the line adds another layer of difficulty.
“I’m expecting just that, that do-or-die mentality,” receiver Greg Jennings said. “It’s win or go home. This is our playoff game.”
The good news for the Packers is the last time they lost three of four games – on a last-second field goal against the Bears in Week 3 and in overtime back-to-back games against Washington and Miami in Weeks 5-6 – they proceeded to put together their best stretch of the season. They won four straight, pulling out close ones against Minnesota and the N.Y. Jets before beating Dallas and Minnesota in the rematch by convincing margins.
So the Packers have shown the ability to right the ship, and do so impressively. They need to do that again in front of the home fans beginning this week, because a loss on Sunday eliminates the Packers from playoff contention.
“I think that’s part of being a pro, is moving on,” tight end Tom Crabtree said. “You have to forget about the bad plays and the good plays. You have to move on to the next one and just do your best on the next play.”
There isn’t exactly a roadmap for how to come back from what the Giants experienced. In the final half a quarter against Philadelphia, they allowed an onside kick to be recovered, quarterback Michael Vick to rush for nearly 100 yards in two possessions, and speedster DeSean Jackson to return a punt for the game-winning touchdown with no time on the clock.
It was a collapse that probably cost the Giants the NFC East title, but their focus has been on the fact that they’re still in the playoff hunt. That was quarterback Eli Manning’s message to the team in a much-publicized but brief players’ only meeting he called on Monday. The Giants can clinch a playoff berth by beating the Packers, and even though their chances aren’t extinguished with a loss, they could need some help to get in if they don’t clinch their spot now.
“This is a game we should be excited about playing,” Manning said. “It’s a big game, for both teams. We’re playing for big things, and so is Green Bay. Both teams should be laying it out all on the line. It should be a great environment – late December game in Green Bay, two good teams – it should be fun.”
Manning is one player who can draw upon his success in a cold-weather game at Lambeau, the 2007 NFC Championship that the Giants won in overtime. But head coach Tom Coughlin is also trying to keep his players aware of the solid, if not dominant, 3½ quarters of football they played against one of the NFC’s top teams last week.
“We played very, very good football for a long time the other day and then let the game get away and didn’t finish it,” Coughlin said. “But it doesn’t negate the fact that we did play pretty well for a long time against a good team.
“We have to finish better. You play as well as we did for as long as we did and then not finish the game and get the game over and have it on your side, that’s the real issue for us right now, and we have to do it. We have to finish.”
The Packers certainly aren’t counting on any lingering effects from the Giants’ tough loss to help them out. Bank on a hangover from the other team, and they’ll be giving you one instead.
“Last week is last week, and we know they’ll come in and play 60 minutes of football,” cornerback Charles Woodson said. “I know their thought process is a lot like ours in the fact that they’ve got to get this win. You’ll see two teams fighting to keep their playoff hopes alive, and that will be the mindset.
“We don’t look at it from the standpoint of what happened to them last week and can we try to make that happen again. We just have to go out and play good football and play a full game as well.”
It will be too late to lobby for a Pro Bowl vote from his old college coach, but cornerback Tramon Williams plans to at least say hello to that familiar face on the opposing sideline on Sunday.
The Giants’ assistant offensive line coach is Jack Bicknell Jr., who was the head coach at Lousiana Tech during the entirety of Williams’ career there.
As the story goes, Williams was a walk-on at Tech who initially didn’t even enroll at the school as an athlete. But he attended a football game during his first semester on campus, was motivated to try out as a walk-on the following spring, and impressed Bicknell with his pure athletic ability in basic workouts before he even put on pads or a helmet.
Williams said he’s grateful for the way Bicknell embraced him immediately as a walk-on, which encouraged him to stick with football even though he was just on the scout team that first year.
“He made it as easy as possible for me to do that,” he said. “At a lot of schools, they don’t just accept walk-ons like he did. It probably was the perfect opportunity for me to go there without the hassle of wondering, ‘Can I walk on?’ Or, ‘Will I really get a fair shot?’
“He definitely gave me a fair shot, and he was a great guy during it. He definitely cared about his players. He’s a great guy all around, period.”
As for what they’ll chat about on Sunday, Williams said he isn’t sure. He believes the last time he actually talked to Bicknell was a couple of years ago when Bicknell attended a training-camp practice in Green Bay. Williams has kept in a little closer touch with his former secondary coach and defensive coordinator at Louisiana Tech, Randy Bates, who now coaches linebackers at Northwestern. But he’s looking forward to getting reacquainted with Bicknell, if only briefly either before or immediately after Sunday’s game.
“He showed the trust in me in college, and I know what he thought of me,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of things that have been going on since those years we were at Tech, all good, so there’s a lot of things we can bring up.
“I definitely will holler at him.”
Matthews getting healthier
Since shortly before the bye week, linebacker Clay Matthews’ shin injury had been limiting him to just the opening jog-through portions of practice. He didn’t miss any games because of it, with the idea being that a limited practice regimen would reduce the pounding and keep him as healthy as possible for games.
But Matthews’ shin has improved to the point that he dressed for a full-pads workout on Thursday for the first time in a couple of months. He’s still officially listed as limited on the injury report, but Matthews has done more work in practice this week than in quite some time, and he was glad to get more involved.
“Practice is only going to help, and getting back here will hopefully help my game out,” said Matthews, who ranks second in the league with 12½ sacks, though he has just one over his last four games. “That’s obviously yet to be determined. But anytime you can have practice, go through the reps, seeing them in live action, that’s only going to help you out as opposed to just watching on film.”
Head Coach Mike McCarthy said the injury has reached a “safe zone,” giving the doctors and Matthews confidence he can practice without unnecessary aggravation.
“It was great to have him out there,” McCarthy said. “I know he feels good about it. It was quality work, especially padded work on a Thursday. I had a chance to watch him exclusively today, and I thought he looked good.
“He’s a young player. He needs it, just like everybody else.”
More on injuries
The starting outside linebacker spot opposite Matthews remains in question this week, with rookie Frank Zombo (knee) sitting out practice for the second straight day and last week’s starter, Erik Walden, limited again with a quadriceps injury. Also, linebacker Diyral Briggs (ankle) was limited for the second straight day as well.
“Tomorrow we’ll see if they’ll be able to go in practice,” McCarthy said. “We’ve been through this a lot this year. We’re just getting everybody ready to play.”
Being injured has been especially frustrating to Zombo, who had begun establishing himself as a solid rookie starter after Brady Poppinga and Brad Jones went on injured reserve earlier in the season. Zombo has four sacks on the year, including two over the three-game span leading up to his injury.
“Obviously I want to be at 100 percent in order to play,” he said, indicating he needs the medical staff’s clearance to play. “I don’t think I’m a good enough football player to play in the NFL at 75 percent. So once I get to 100 percent I’ll be ready to go.
“Individually, I don’t have many opportunities to get starts in the NFL, so I want to take advantage of as many of those as I can get, and right now I feel like I’m missing an opportunity to play. So obviously I want to get back on the field and help the team win.”
Two offensive linemen were added to the injury report on Thursday with back injuries – starting center Scott Wells and rookie backup guard/tackle Marshall Newhouse. Wells was limited, participating in the opening jog-through, while Newhouse sat out the entire workout.
McCarthy said he wasn’t overly concerned about Wells and expected him to be able to practice on Friday. Wells has started 28 straight games at center.
The only other changes to Green Bay’s injury report were that tackle Chad Clifton (knees) was upgraded from a limited to a full participant, while defensive end Ryan Pickett (ankle) and Woodson (toe) were downgraded from full to limited.
Safety Nick Collins (ribs) was limited for the second straight day, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers (concussion) and cornerback Pat Lee (ankle) remained full participants.
The Giants added former Packers return man Will Blackmon (knee) to their injury report on Thursday. Blackmon missed the workout. Both tackle David Diehl (illness) and receiver Mario Manningham (heel) were upgraded to full participants.
The rest of New York’s injury report remained the same as Wednesday.
Smart in the stands
This week’s issue of Sports Illustrated includes a poll of players around the league that asked which city they thought had the most knowledgeable fans in the NFL, and Green Bay checked in at No. 1 with 26 percent of the vote.
The results were based on the 277 players who responded to the magazine’s survey, and Green Bay finished well ahead of No. 2 Pittsburgh (14 percent). Rounding out the top five were New York (9 percent), Philadelphia (8 percent) and Dallas (7 percent).
Additional coverage - Dec. 23