Of all the ways the Green Bay Packers might’ve lost the NFC Championship Game to the New York Football Giants, no one would’ve predicted this. Just a week after Ryan Grant plowed through the Seattle Seahawks for 201 yards rushing and three touchdowns in a playoff-perfect, made-for-TV snowstorm, the Giants stopped him cold -- figuratively and literally.
On a night where the temperature dropped to minus 24-degrees with the wind chill, Grant was dropped for one short gain after no gain, after short gain, finishing with just 29 yards on 13 carries and New York pulled out a stunning 23-20 overtime victory to advance to Super Bowl XLII in Glendale, AZ, a welcomed 80-degree upswing on the thermometer.
More than Brett Favre’s interception on the second play of overtime or Lawrence Tyne’s ensuing 47-yard game-winning kick, more than the sub-zero temps that truly made the tundra -- and the fans -- frozen, more than the five fumbles by New York, or the fact that Giants’ receiver Plaxico Burress decided to keep warm by burning cornerback Al Harris for most of the game -- the inability to run the ball put Green Bay’s championship dreams on ice.
This wasn’t a fluke. This wasn’t about what Green Bay didn’t do or opportunities that were missed -- though there were plenty. This was about what New York did to them. This game was more about New York winning than Green Bay losing. Both teams came to play. The Giants just played better in nearly every facet -- most notably their run defense.
Few gave this team its full due when it played the Patriots down to the wire in the regular season finale. Most shrugged off their playoff win against Tampa Bay. And no one thought they were for real when they beat the top-seeded Cowboys at Dallas a week earlier. But to borrow a quote from quarterback Eli Manning’s favorite TV show, “They’re real and they’re spectacular.” There was no doubt of that Sunday night.
“I just tried to run hard, but they did a good job of keeping me sideways, which is not what we want to do in this offense,“ Grant said. “They played better.”
“They executed better than us. They did a good job of putting us in situations we didn’t want to be in ... third down, third-and-long ... and we didn’t play up to the level that we knew we could play at.”
In essence, New York turned back the clock three months and made Green Bay a one-dimensional offense, just as they were in the first half of the year. They did it by being incredibly stout at the point of attack, incredibly disciplined on the back side of plays to eliminate the cut back lanes, and stretching the field horizontally so defenders could flow to the ball. Justin Tuck dropping Grant for no gain; linebacker Antonio Pierce clogging the middle of the line; or Michael Strahan pulling Grant down from behind aren’t the type of plays that lead off SportsCenter, but they’re the story of this game. It will be a story two weeks from now in their rematch with New England and running back Laurence Maroney, as well. Not that you'll hear much about it.
Without a running game to take minutes off the clock and pressure off of Favre, the Giants banged-up and apparently underrated secondary was able to bracket big-play threat Greg Jennings, who finished with just one catch for 14-yards. Forced to look elsewhere, Favre did find Donald Driver for a highlight-caliber 90-yard touchdown that temporarily warmed the record home crowd of 72,740. But the Giants linebackers and defensive backs were sure tacklers against a receiving corp that led the NFL in yards after the catch. That was a big part of Green Bay being just 1 of 10 on third-down conversions.
“We didn’t make a play,” said right tackle Mark Tauscher. “We made one play all day that I can think of. They kept the chains moving. We had no rhythm offensively. I give that team a lot of credit. It’s not like we didn’t play our best game, I mean they earned it. They went out and decided that they were going to take this game and we didn’t do that.
“Tempo is key. Getting first downs is how you get in a rhythm. We don’t care how we get them. We want to be balanced, but we want to put up points. That’s the thing that’s disappointing, we weren’t able to get in any semblance of a rhythm. It was pretty choppy all day. We weren’t able to sustain anything. It’s tough.”
To make matters worse, New York rolled up 134 yards of their own on the ground using a thunder-lightning combination of bruising Brandon Jacobs and speedy Ahmad Bradshaw that gave them a decided edge in time of possession and began to sap the strength of the Packers’ defenders as much as the cold.
McCarthy admitted after the game that he didn’t stay committed to the running game or Grant, who was the league’s second-leading rusher since Week 8 of the season. But there’s two ways to look at that. First, there were no yards to be had, which became fairly obvious early on, so what was he really supposed to commit to -- one and two yard gains? If Green Bay had had any success running the ball early, McCarthy would’ve continued to feed Grant. But that never happened. Of course, the flipside is that Grant has shown a knack for breaking off a long run and a limited number of carries means a fewer chances for that to happen.
There will be plenty of second guessing to keep everyone occupied through the offseason. But who would’ve guessed a few months back that Green Bay would even be playing in the conference championship, let alone hosting it? Let that thought give you a at least a little warmth as you thaw out from this stinging loss.
W. Keith Roerdink is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.