Sometimes it is most obvious in body language. Aaron Rodgers’s shoulders drooped. He put his hands on his hips and kicked at the dirt. His head turned from side to side, as if he were looking for something — because something was definitely missing. His stride shortened, and his walk back to the sideline took longer with each trip to the bench.
This is what the Giants’ defense — at least the Giants’ postseason defense in 2012 and 2008 — can do to elite quarterbacks in big games.
It’s all too easy, and commonplace, to try to compare the Giants’ current run through the playoffs to their Super Bowl championship postseason four years ago. But one unmistakable comparison rings true. As it did four years ago, the Giants’ defense has gone through a startling metamorphosis as the games have grown more important, and what it does best is make opposing quarterbacks — even future Hall of Famers — look confused, frustrated and dejected.
As it once did to Tom Brady and his 18-0 New England Patriots, the Giants’ defense disrupted and flummoxed Rodgers and his 15-1 Green Bay Packers on Sunday until the game was a rout. The 37-20 Giants victory did the unthinkable: it made Rodgers, a most valuable player contender, look bad. And sent the Giants to the N.F.C. championship game next Sunday in San Francisco.
The Packers, renowned for their big-play passing attack, had one completion longer than 20 yards, and that was for 21 yards. Rodgers nearly averaged more yards in seven rushing attempts (9.4) than he did when passing (10.2 yards per completion).
“He looked a little out of sorts,” Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said of Rodgers. “I wouldn’t say rattled, but frustrated. It was tough sledding for him.”
The easy analysis is that Rodgers was clearly not as sharp as usual. But the unease and inaccuracy Rodgers demonstrated late in the game developed over time. He seemed to grow more and more unsure of where the defensive linemen were, and more important, as he gazed downfield, he rarely saw a receiver running open. As the game went on, the Giants threw off Rodgers’s timing and, perhaps, made him doubt his decision-making.
“They have a way of closing the pocket on you,” Rodgers said. “You’re forced to do something else.”
Like run for your life. Which is how Rodgers kept the Packers afloat through a seesaw first quarter. But the Packers’ offensive line was beginning to lose the battle up front as the first half ended. Eli Manning’s desperation touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks to end the second quarter gave the Giants a 10-point lead. The momentum was turning.
Then the game really spiraled out of control for the Packers.
“We’ve played some top quarterbacks tough before,” defensive tackle Chris Canty said. “We get energized by the challenge when the talk all week is about the other guy. We want to do something about that, and our performance today showed it.”
No single unit on the Giants’ defense has improved as quickly and significantly as the secondary. Its goal Sunday was to keep the cadre of talented Packers receivers in front of them — to allow the 8- or even the 14-yard pass but not the long strike.
“Even though they were completing some of those passes, you know they want more,” said safety Antrel Rolle, who twice batted away Rodgers passes in the end zone. “And eventually that forced Rodgers into some bad throws and got him out of his rhythm.”
The Giants’ pressure seemed to unnerve Rodgers multiple times. Midway through the third quarter, in one of the few times that a Packers wide receiver had an advantage, Jordy Nelson was sprinting several steps behind cornerback Aaron Ross. But when Rodgers wound up to loft a pass 60 yards downfield, the ball fluttered and sailed ever so slighted; Ross easily batted the underthrown pass away.
Early in the fourth quarter, Rodgers, a bit hurried by the pass rush, missed a wide-open Jermichael Finley at the Giants’ 25-yard line. That set up a fourth-and-5. Statistically, that situation has favored the Packers this season. Not this time. As Rodgers tried stepping up in the pocket to buy time, Osi Umenyiora grabbed at his feet, and then linebacker Michael Boley, who had a spectacular game, finished him off for a sack.
Shortly thereafter, the Giants’ second-half domination was hitting full stride, with offensive touchdowns, fumble recoveries — and more stifling defense.
Even Rodgers’s last pass of the day fit the theme. Intended for Finley, it was knocked in the air, and Deon Grant intercepted it.
At the half, in a moment that few, if any, 15-1 teams have experienced, especially a team that is also the defending Super Bowl champion, the Packers were booed off the field. Maybe the fans sensed what was to come after intermission.
By game’s end, the soundtrack had changed significantly. No one was booing. That would have seemed anticlimactic, and most Green Bay supporters had left anyway. The fans who remained, numbering in the thousands, wore Giants blue. They leaned over the lower grandstand railings and cheered, in no hurry to leave.
Some took pictures of the Giants on their phones. Others talked on their phones. After all, they had a lot of catching up to do back home after another big Giants upset of a seemingly invincible team. Some were tapping the keys of their smartphones. They had reservations to make for San Francisco.
View the original article in NYTimes.com