- Associated Press - Sunday, January 8, 2012

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — All the missing pieces — defense and a running game — are aligning at the right time for Eli Manning and the New York Giants. And just in time to play the Packers.

After routing the Atlanta Falcons 24-2 Sunday in the NFC wild-card game, the Giants head to Green Bay next weekend, a place where they will need all the help they can muster.

Manning carried the Giants (10-7) for much of the season, hoping the defense would get stingy, the pass rush would materialize and the running game would get on track. Now, all of that is happening.

“A great mix of run and pass and these guys have a great understanding of what our offense is,” Manning said of the help he’s receiving. “If we can get that run game going like we did in the second half, that opens up a lot of windows.”

And if the defense remains impenetrable, watch out.

“If we can play defense like that, we will continue to make ourselves heard in this tournament,” coach Tom Coughlin said.

Manning punctuated his best pro season by throwing for three touchdowns and scrambling for a 14-yard gain that woke up New York’s offense in its first postseason victory since its Super Bowl upset of undefeated New England four years ago. Next up is as big a challenge: the defending champion Packers (15-1), who won here 38-35 in December.

“We know they are a good team,” Manning said. “We played them tough here, did some good things here, we scored some points. We know offensively we are going to have to play strong, score some points.”

The team that couldn’t run the ball will be sprinting there, bringing along a defense the Packers actually might fear. Not to mention the passing offense led by Manning, who hooked up on a 72-yard catch and run by Hakeem Nicks in the third quarter that put away the inept Falcons (10-7). Manning also connected on a 4-yard TD with Nicks in the second period, and a 27-yard TD throw to Mario Manningham in the fourth quarter that finished it off.

The Giants‘ last postseason trip to frigid Lambeau Field was a 23-20 overtime victory for the NFC championship two weeks before they upset the Patriots.

“Cold, I remember that. I remember coach Coughlin’s face. I remember (tackle) David Diehl sweating and it froze on his hair and he had icicles on his hair,” defensive end Justin Tuck said. “And I remember us winning.

“Hopefully, we can go back there and do it again.”

The tempo in the first playoff game at MetLife Stadium was set by New York’s defense, which never allowed Atlanta to get going, and by the league’s lowest-ranked rushing game, which ran for a season-high 172 yards, 92 by Brandon Jacobs and 63 by Ahmad Bradshaw. The Giants averaged 5.5 yards a carry, 2 yards more than in the regular season.

For all of Jacobs‘ and Bradshaw’s success, it was Manning’s escape and 14-yard dash on third down in the second period that got the Giants rolling. Jacobs soon broke a 34-yard run, and Manning hit Nicks on a post pattern to put the Giants up 7-2.

“I don’t think anyone is game-planning for me to run the ball,” Manning said, “but obviously there were a couple of situations where you have to do it. I am not scared of running to get a few yards.”

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