THE GAME: The Giants (11-5) at the Green Bay Packers (10-6) in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisc., on Sunday, Jan. 8 at 4:40 p.m.
THE WEATHER: Brrrrr. … I mean, really, really Brrrrr. … Of course, it won't be quite as painfully cold as it was during Ice Bowl III -- otherwise known as the 2007 NFC championship game when the kickoff temperature was minus-1 and the windchills were at minus-23 -- this will still be painfully cold. At the moment the forecast calls for a kickoff temperature in the single digits, and every time I look at it the number gets lower and lower. Right now, it looks like it could be between 6 and 9. The good news, I guess, is that the winds should be light so it's doubtful the windchills will make it feel much less than zero. … So, um … Yay?
WHAT IT MEANS: The winner, of course, advances to the divisional playoff round next weekend, either at top-seeded Dallas or second-seeded Atlanta. There's probably a little more pressure on the Packers, though. Despite the fact they've been in the postseason eight straight seasons, they've only advanced past the divisional round twice in that time. The expectations are high for them since they've won six straight games, too. No one's job or legacy is in trouble, but there is a general feeling that the Packers should have been better in the playoffs under Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers. Since their Super Bowl championship in the 2010 season, they're only 3-5 in the postseason. Also, a loss in this game would be their third straight home loss in the playoffs to the Giants -- something that was once unthinkable
PLAYER TO WATCH: Giants WR Odell Beckham, Jr. He wanted the big stage and now he's got it, and boy do the Giants need him to perform. For most of the season, the Eli Manning-to-Beckham combo has been the entire Giants offense. It certainly has been responsible for most of the biggest plays. Obviously the Packers know that and you can bet they will do what everyone has been doing with Beckham -- play him like they're an umbrella, giving him a cushion underneath, putting a safety on his side, and shading a linebacker or another corner towards him so when he catches the ball he's surrounded. The Giants' passing offense is based on quick, short passes and the hope that their play-makers can turn the short pass into a big gain. So it'll be up to Beckham to find the open spaces, make tacklers miss, and force the Packers to devote even more attention to him. In theory it should be relatively easy for him to do against a banged-up Packers secondary. If he's contained, it's hard to see the Giants moving the ball or scoring enough to stay in this game.
BY THE NUMBERS: The Packers were once considered invincible at Lambeau Field. They had never lost a postseason game there (13-0) until the Atlanta Falcons stunned them in the 2002 wild-card game. Since the streak ended, though, the Packers are 4-5 in playoff games at home. … In the last seven games, Packers QB Aaron Rodgers has thrown 18 touchdown passes and no interceptions. He also completed 69.7 percent of his passes in that stretch (168 for 241) for 2,018 yards. That's a passer rating of 120.0. … The Packers were fourth in the NFL, averaging 27.0 points per game this season. During their season-ending six-game winning streak they bumped that average to 30.8. During the last four games, they averaged 34.2. Those last four games, by the way, included two games against Top 5 defenses. They scored 38 against fifth-ranked Seattle and 38 against third-ranked Minnesota. … Eli Manning is 0-2 in two regular-season games in Green Bay (2010, 2016), completing just 35 of 68 passes (51.4 percent) for 500 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions (a passer rating of 65.8). In two playoff games there, though, he's 2-0, completing 42 of 73 passes (57.5 percent) for 581 yards, three touchdowns and one interception (a passer rating of 91.2). … The Giants were the fourth-worst rushing team in the NFL this season, averaging just 88.2 yards per game on the ground. How deceiving is that number, though? Through the first eight games of the season, the Giants averaged just 68.25 yards per game on the ground. Through the last eight games their rushing averaged jumped to 108.25.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Packers WRs Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb against Giants CBs Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and Eli Apple. This matchup is everything in this game. They are one of the most dangerous receiving trios in the NFL and they are facing perhaps the best trio of corners in the NFL. Strength against strength. Normally the Packers' advantage is that it's hard to contain all three of them, but the Giants might actually have the corners to do it. Presumably Jenkins will be on Nelson, and presumably he's healthy enough to stick with him. But since all three of those receivers are capable of having huge games, there's plenty of pressure on DRC and Apple, too. It's even worse for them because of QB Aaron Rodgers, who is among the best in the league at escaping pass-rushes and throwing on the run. If he can get outside the pass rush and extend the play and force the Giants corners to have to hold their coverage longer than usual, this matchup could be a huge problem. And chances are the Packers receivers are going to have some numbers and their share of big plays. The real challenge for the NYPD (the "New York Pass Defense") is to minimize the damage and keep the score low enough so the Giants' weak offense can have a chance to win the game.
X FACTOR: Packers TE Jared Cook. Rodgers said the biggest factor in the Packers' win streak has been the presence of Cook, who had been injured for much of the first half of the season. He gives Rodgers a big target in the middle of the field who is capable of making big plays up the seam. That's huge, considering defenses rightly have to focus much of their attention on the Packers' three dangerous receivers. If the Giants have safety Landon Collins focus primarily on Cook, it could mean single coverage for the other receivers. If Collins spends his time helping out on the receivers, it could open up holes for Cook. And as everyone knows, the Giants have had trouble all season long covering tight ends, so he could be a big threat for the Packers on Sunday.
THE PICK: I know all about the reasons to pick the Giants: The championship-caliber defense, Eli Manning's history of postseason success, their history of playoff wins in Green Bay, the special feeling this team seems to have. They're all valid. The truth is, this defense is good enough to carry the Giants a long way. And as I've said all season, if Manning and the offense ever clicks, look out, because the Giants could become unstoppable. But I'm not counting on that to happen after 16 games of watching the offense flounder -- especially not in these brutal conditions on the road. The Giants have simply not been a good road team all year long. They played well in their opener in Dallas and in their finale in Washington, but not in any other road game in between. And yes, as much as I hated Ben McAdoo's decision to play most of his starters the whole game in finale, that was an impressive win against the Redskins. But the offense still only scored 10 points, so it's not like they built any momentum there.
Even against a banged-up Packers secondary, I don't see things magically changing now. That puts the pressure where it's been all year -- on the Giants' defense. And this game, to me, is just a matchup nightmare. The Packers are a pass-heavy team. The Giants are much better at stopping the run. And the Packers have so many good receivers they can stretch the Giants' secondary to its limits. And then there's tight end Jared Cook, who could be a huge factor (see above) considering the Giants have been terrible at covering all year. And I haven't even gotten to the worst part: Rodgers is red-hot and he is the worst kind of quarterback for the Giants to face -- a mobile QB who is terrific at throwing outside the pocket. Remember how much trouble the Giants had with Carson Wentz in Week 16 in Philadelphia? It was because of Wentz's ability to escape the pass rush and make a play -- and he's nowhere near the quarterback Rodgers is. So to sum this up in simple terms, I can see how the Packers can score enough points even on this Giants defense. And while I still think the Giants' offense has the potential to keep up, the way they've played this season suggests they won't. Never discount the magic of 'Playoff Eli', and respect the Giants' successful history in Lambeau in the winter. But this feels different than it did in 2007 and 2011. These Giants don't seem to be as good as those teams, and this time the task seems to be far too large. . … Packers 27, Giants 20.
MY RECORD: 9-7.
MY RECORD WHEN PICKING THE GIANTS TO WIN: 6-2
MY RECORD WHEN PICKING THE GIANTS TO LOSE: 3-5