GREEN BAY, WIS. (AP) - Going into Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game against the New York Giants, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers are best known for all the fireworks they’ve produced on offense.
That’s a good thing for the Super Bowl champions, because they’ve been remarkably vulnerable on defense.
All season, the Packers have been giving up yards in big chunks and bailing themselves out by forcing turnovers. And while the Giants might hope to slow the game down by establishing the run and keeping Rodgers on the sideline, the last meeting between the two teams _ a 38-35 victory by the Packers on a last-second field goal Dec. 4 _ could mean Sunday is shaping up as another fast-paced game that comes down to the last possession.
With Eli Manning and the offense on a role, the Giants like their chances this time around.
“I think if we get into a shootout like we did last time, I think we will be OK,” wide receiver Victor Cruz said. “But it will have to come down to who has the last touch.”
Meanwhile, the Packers’ defense is looking to hit the reset button in the playoffs.
“This is a fresh start for us to right all our wrongs,” defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said. “We’re excited about it. It’s the same group that did it last year, the same team, so we know it’s there to do it. You just have to do it. Time is running out. This is one-and-done, so we have to get it done.”
Manning can draw on the Giants’ victory in a frigid NFC championship game at Lambeau Field four years ago, but he doesn’t think that experience is relevant.
“It’s a new year, a new team, new players going against a new team,” Manning said. “It’s just a matter of guys executing, guys knowing the game plan, going in there, looking forward to the opportunity that’s ahead of us, getting excited about it and have the attitude that we’re going to go in there and play great football.”
They’ll likely have their chances.
Green Bay’s defense gave up more yards than any other team this season, an average of 411.6 per game. Packers coaches and players shrug off that statistic, pointing out that their ball-hawking defense has been able to come up with enough turnovers and stops in critical situations to help the team go 15-1.
What’s more troubling than the yards is the number of big plays. According to STATS LLC, the Packers gave up 80 plays of 20-plus yards this season _ third-most in the league this season, and 26 more big plays than they gave up last season.
The Packers have been better in the second half of the season, giving up 25 big plays in the past eight games, according to STATS.
They’re certain to be tested by Manning, a talented group of wide receivers and a running game that finally seems to be playing up to its potential.
“One thing about Eli, he’s having I think his best year,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “The guy’s been very accurate throwing the deep ball.”
Capers said Manning has improved considerably when it comes to throwing on the move.
“Eli doesn’t move to run, but he moves to buy time for those receivers,” Capers said. “They do a good job of adjusting their routes. I’ve seen him move _ he moves more to his right than he does his left _ but he can move and still throw the ball with some accuracy. I think he’s doing a better job with that.”
To Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji, the biggest difference in Manning’s game is that he’s throwing fewer interceptions.
“He’s always been able to make every throw,” Raji said. “Just when he’s choosing to make those throws, I think he’s doing a fantastic job.”
And for all their faults, the Packers defense has lived off interceptions this year, picking off an NFL-best 31 passes this season.
“In their secondary at least, they like to gamble a lot, they like to take a lot of chances and risks,” Cruz said. “Which means they either win or they lose big, which explains why they lead the league in interceptions and why they lead the league in giving up big plays, they are tops in the league in giving up big plays. So we understand that and we’ve seen it on film.”
Manning threw 16 interceptions this season after throwing 25 in 2010, and will be especially mindful of avoiding turnovers against the Packers.
“They try to make some big plays so they give up a few plays,” Manning said. “But especially with an offense like they have, that has the ability to score and score quickly, you can’t give them extra opportunities. You can’t give them a short field. We have to take care of the football.”
That’s the challenge for a Packers defense that hopes to make a fresh start in the playoffs.
“I think our defensive guys are excited about the opportunity,” Capers said. “I think we know what we’ve got to do. We’re facing an offense that’s hitting on all cylinders. They did a really nice job against the Falcons last week so they come in with momentum.”
AP Sports Writer Tom Canavan contributed to this report from East Rutherford, N.J.
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