GREEN BAY—It’s a big weekend of divisional play in the NFC East and NFC North, and the Packers-Giants game on Sunday night will play a major role in how both divisions will look heading into the final month of the regular season.
Implications for the NFC East are already known, as Washington defeated Dallas on Thanksgiving Day. That put both of New York’s closest pursuers at 5-6, meaning the 6-4 Giants cannot lose their hold on first place even if they drop Sunday night’s game.
It also means, of course, that with a victory the Giants can reclaim the firm hold on the division lead they held three weeks ago when they were sitting at 6-2 and no one else in their division had more than three wins. Since then, the Giants have lost two straight and stewed about it over their bye week.
Meanwhile, in the NFC North, the 7-3 Packers will know by the time they take the field Sunday night what’s at stake in the short term. The 7-3 Bears host the 6-4 Vikings in an early game Sunday, the first of two meetings between those teams over the next three weeks.
Should the Bears win, the Packers will have to win to remain tied for first place. If the Vikings win, the Packers will have a chance to grab the outright lead in the division for the first time all season. Of course, a Vikings win and a Packers loss would create a three-way tie atop the division at 7-4 with five games to play.
Whatever the scenario, in the spirit of the holiday week the Packers are certainly thankful to be in this position when six weeks ago they were 2-3. A big road victory over previously unbeaten Houston started the current five-game winning streak that has the Packers right in the thick of things perhaps sooner than they could have expected.
“We’re real happy to be back up there, especially after starting 2-3,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “We’re gaining momentum as we go, but we know we need to play our best late in the season and into the playoffs.
“We’ve set ourselves up to be at least in the conversation in the winter time here, which is all we can ask for in Green Bay, and our goals are still in front of us.”
The Giants are saying the same thing as they look to snap their two-game losing streak, which has raised several issues, most notably the play of two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Eli Manning.
Over these last two games, against the AFC North’s Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, Manning has posted a cumulative passer rating of just 50.9 (39-of-70, 340 yards, 0 TD, 3 INT), absorbed half of the 12 sacks on his ledger this year, and fumbled three times (losing one).
That’s not to suggest Manning is the sole reason for the current slide. The defense gave up two fourth-quarter TDs and more than 150 rushing yards to the Steelers and surrendered four TD passes to the Bengals.
But no matter the role Manning has played in defeat, he almost surely will be the catalyst to the turnaround the Giants are counting on.
“When you’ve got a quarterback like Eli, they can come out of that struggle at any given time,” Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said. “You can’t go into a game banking that a guy is going to struggle. He’s not going to struggle forever. I’m expecting him to come out and play like we know he can play, so that’s the way we’re going to prepare.”
The Packers have been preparing all season to peak when it matters most, and it’s getting closer and closer to that time.
“We understand the importance of winning games in November and December, playing our best football,” Mike McCarthy said. “We feel like that’s ahead of us, and that’s what we’re working towards.”
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