Forget Dak Prescott, Tom Brady, and Matt Ryan.
Aaron Rodgers has probably been the NFL’s top quarterback since Thanksgiving in late November.
He’s re-established that dynamic connection with receiver Jordy Nelson for the Green Bay Packers, and Ty Montgomery’s emergence as a receiver-turned-running back has been a revelation.
Rodgers is on a roll, and when he gets going, the Packers look unstoppable, capable of building big leads and coming back from any deficit. After a 1-2 start in 2014, Rodgers famously admonished fans to R-E-L-A-X. This season, after a 4-6 start, he promised to ”run the table” and led them to another NFC North division title.
They feature in the showcase of wild-card playoffs weekend, when they host Eli Manning and the New York Giants on Sunday.
The playoff history between the Packers and Giants is rich. For the record, the Packers have a 4-3 edge.
The Giants won the first matchup and the NFL title in 1938, beating the Packers 23-17. The Packers won the next four games and NFL championships in 1939, `44, 61 and `62. The Giants won the last two playoff games in 2008 and 2012, both at Lambeau Field, and went on to win the Super Bowls.
The Packers’ weakness is in defense, where the secondary is depleted. The offense has been on a remarkable run of mistake-free football during their six-match winning streak, but they could be hard-pressed to keep up in high-scoring games like they were during a midseason four-game slump.
The Giants are showing elements of the frenzied pass rush and opportunistic defense that won them their last two NFL crowns. Over the last 11 games, opponents have averaged just 16 points against the Giants.
They need that stingy defense because of their ineffective offense. The Giants didn’t score 30 points in any game, and haven’t even reached 20 points since Nov. 27 against the hapless Cleveland Browns. The running game is so-so, and Manning seems comfortable throwing only to Odell Beckham Jr. Not that it’s a bad idea.
In the other game on Sunday, Pittsburgh hosts the Miami Dolphins, who turned around their season with an Oct. 16 victory over the Steelers.
But Miami is yet another team using a backup quarterback, Matt Moore, after starter Ryan Tannehill was ruled out on Thursday because he wasn’t ready to practice on a sprained left knee. If Jay Ajayi can run wild again, Miami has a solid chance.
However, the Steelers are a tested bunch and got to rest several key players in the regular season finale, including Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.
Wild-card weekend begins with the Oakland Raiders, one of the AFC’s powers until the past three weeks, traveling to the Houston Texans on Saturday, followed by the Detroit Lions at the Seattle Seahawks.
Raiders rookie Connor Cook will become the first quarterback in NFL history to make his first start in a playoff game. Derek Carr and Matt McGloin remain injured. Cook had 150 yards passing and a touchdown in his NFL debut last week.
Meanwhile, the Texans are going back to the so-far-underwhelming Brock Osweiler after Tom Savage was concussed last week.
Neither the Seahawks nor the Lions have been inspiring in the past month, with Detroit throwing away the NFC North crown with three straight closing defeats, and Seattle kicking away a bye by splitting its final six games.
These are two of the worst running teams in American football, but Seattle has gotten back Thomas Rawls, which could make for a distinct edge.
The Seahawks also have the better defense, though its been vulnerable against the pass since star safety Earl Thomas broke his left leg a month ago.
Detroit’s Matthew Stafford is the first quarterback to lead eight game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime since the 1970 merger, but he’s been sacked an NFL-most 37 times. The Lions are also down to their third running back.