EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The New York Giants’ defense wanted another shot at Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers after a last-second loss last month. They got their wish.
And this time it might be a fair fight.
The last time the Giants (10-7) faced the Packers, Rodgers shredded the defense for 449 yards and four touchdowns, winning the game with a 68-yard drive in the final minute to set up a 31-yard field goal in a 38-35 decision.
That’s ancient history. The Giants’ defense has come light years in five weeks. The front four is dominating, led by All-Pro Jason Pierre-Paul, with Justin Tuck finally healthy, and Osi Umenyiora recovered from an ankle injury.
The secondary is covering receivers and opponents are being stuffed on the run. It’s shutdown football, as was evident on Sunday in a 24-2 win over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC wild-card game at MetLife Stadium.
That set up the rematch with the Packers (15-1) at Lambeau Field on Sunday.
“We wanted to see them again, but we realized in seeing them again it would be in a playoff game like this, so obviously we wanted to see them again,” Tuck said Monday. “But yeah, we felt like we let one slip through our hands. I am sure Green Bay is saying to themselves, ‘We didn’t play our best game.’ All of that is in the past. We’ll get our opportunity to settle all those question marks on Sunday.”
The Giants have played five games since facing the Packers on Dec. 4 and the defense seemingly has gotten better each week. After giving up 34 points in a three-point win over Dallas on Dec. 11, New York has given up 53 points in the last four games.
There is a theory that by playing well against the-then undefeated Packers, the Giants gained confidence.
“”We didn’t need that game to understand that,” safety Antrel Rolle said. “I think that’s all within ourselves. We understand that we are a great team, we just have been complacent all year long. Right now, we are peaking and we are jelling, and we are playing great team football.”
When the Giants played the Packers, weak side linebacker Michael Boley was coming off a hamstring injury and middle linebacker Chase Blackburn had just been signed in the wake of an ankle injury to rookie Mark Herzlich. Umenyiora was out of the lineup with a high ankle sprain and Tuck, bothered by shoulder and groin injuries earlier, was dealing with an ankle problem.
While the line was able to sack Rodgers twice, there was never consistent pressure and it allowed the All-Pro quarterback to pick and choose his receivers on a day he was 28 of 45 and connected with eight targets.
The Giants’ line has been creating havoc for opponents in recent weeks. New York had 11 sacks in closing the season with wins over the Jets and Cowboys, and Matt Ryan of the Falcons looked very tentative on Sunday despite being sacked only twice.
Backup defensive lineman Dave Tollefson said the defense’s confidence is high, especially after limiting the Falcons to 247 yards, including 64 rushing.
“It’s just a matter of everything going well,” Tollefson said “Communication is a big part of the defense. Offenses, these days, are always changing the play at the line of scrimmage. Something is always getting changed. Defensively, you have to get on the same page. You leave one guy off the page you get dinged for an 80-yard run. I think the communication has been great and I think it will only continue to get better as we play.”
Boley noted the small mental errors that were hurting the team at times have been either reduced or eliminated.
That said, the Giants realize they need one of their best defensive games to win. And even that might not be enough with Rodgers running the Packers
“I think we played better than OK,” Rolle said of the last meeting. “A lot of it is the quarterback. He is going to make his plays. It was just little things we can change in the game that can take away 21 points easily. We’re aware of that and they probably have the same mindset.”
Veteran defensive tackle Chris Canty said the Giants came close to being perfect against Atlanta. Watching the videotape on Monday, he said the interior of the line missed their gaps at times, had their pad level too high and needed better technique.
The linebackers and defensive backs also saw imperfections, but not many.
“I am excited how good this football team can be,” Canty said. “We haven’t played our best football yet. I keep saying that and it seems nobody believes me, but we haven’t played our best football yet. We can close. When it clicks, it is going to be a special moment. I am excited about the opportunity for that to happen.”
The Giants had one of those performances in Green Bay in the NFC title game in January 2008.
“It will be intriguing to see how we come out and play the game,” Tuck said. “The last couple of games have been at home in the friendly confines of MetLife Stadium, and we have played well. Now we can channel some of our recent history as road warriors going back to Lambeau Field. The one thing I would like to pick up from ’07 is that road warrior mentality. Going against a team on the road, it seemed like we didn’t miss a beat. Hopefully that can be the same for this year, too.”
NOTES: CB Aaron Ross and RB D.J. Ware were having concussion protocols performed Monday. There was no immediate word on their condition. They were hurt Sunday. ..Coach Tom Coughlin said the other injuries were the usual game dings. …Every player on the Giants got a game ball, Coughlin said.