For anyone wondering if the New York Giants will wake up to make a run at defending their Super Bowl title, Sunday's game against the streaking Green Bay Packers should be a good indication.
The slumping Giants (6-4) are coming out of the bye week on a two-game slide and facing one of the NFL's toughest schedules in the final six weeks.
It kicks off at home with the nationally televised game against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers (7-3), whose five-game winning streak is tied with Denver for the current longest in the league.
"This is extremely important, it can be a make-or-break game," Giants safety Antrel Rolle said. "We have to go out there and sustain something that is going to mean something for our team. At this point, we have to focus on the Green Bay Packers and give it our all. That's all that anyone can ask for."
The situation isn't new for Tom Coughlin's team. They blew a lead in the NFC East after a good start last season, then put together a six-game winning streak that carried them to their second NFL title since 2007.
Included in that run was a 37-20 win over the Packers in the NFC divisional round, a game in which New York forced four turnovers and got three touchdown passes from Eli Manning.
Recently, the Giants have not played well for a month. They blew a fourth-quarter lead against the Steelers and followed that with a dismal effort in a loss at Cincinnati. Before that, they needed a 77-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Victor Cruz to beat Washington and then escaped Dallas with a win when Dez Bryant's hand landed out of bounds, nullifying a late touchdown that would have allowed it to take a late lead.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said almost every team has up and downs during a long season.
"I've been very impressed with what the Giants have put on film," McCarthy said. "That's what we are preparing for. I don't spend a lot of time, personally, on statistics and records and stats. I stay more focused on players on video and what they are doing schematically, technically and fundamentally, and the matchups we are getting ready to go up against. This is a very physical football team."
After a somewhat slow start, the Packers have turned things around, winning six of seven games. Rodgers, who led Green Bay to a 15-1 regular-season mark last season, has thrown 24 touchdowns and four interceptions in the run while posting a quarterback rating of 117.
Rodgers also has been a pain for the Giants in their last two regular-season games, throwing for 773 yards, eight TDs and just one interception.
"He is what makes us go on offense," McCarthy said. "That's how our offensive system is built, around the quarterback. He carries a lot of responsibility. I'm very pleased with his performance to date."
Tom Coughlin isn't as happy with his offense.
Manning hasn't thrown for a touchdown in the last three games, and the defense has set up most of the points the team has scored. New York has been limited to 33 points in the last two games and the big plays that made the offense one of the most potent in the NFL earlier this season have dried up.
It has to get better quickly with games against Washington, which always plays the Giants tough, New Orleans, Atlanta, Baltimore and Philadelphia on tap down the stretch.
"We know these last six games are important and are going to dictate what our future is and whether our season ends up in the playoffs or not," Manning said. "We can't start down the road when we've got a big one right in front of us."
The good news for the Giants is they have had a week off to regroup, a period that ended with a players' only meeting on Monday. The gist was simple: Now is the time to turn things around — or else.
New York is healthier, too.
Safety Kenny Phillips, who has not played since the end of September because of a knee injury, seemingly is very close to returning. Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks has had time to rest the foot and knee problems that have slowed him all season, and he might be ready to make a bigger contribution, which would be a major boost for the offense.
Nicks had seven catches for 165 yards and two touchdowns in the playoff win over Green Bay, including a desperation throw at the end of the first half that gave the Giants a huge lift and took some of the air out of the Packers.
Defensively, New York has to find a way to put more pressure on Rodgers, at least more than Andy Dalton felt in the last game, when the Bengals quarterback had all day to throw.
"It has that feel to it, that we've turned a page," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said. "I hope it comes true Sunday. A lot of guys are saying the right things. A lot of guys have had sort of a rebirth. We'll find out on Sunday.
"We've been in this situation before and we've come out on top, especially last year," Tuck added. "But last year doesn't really have as much to do with this year. Different team. Different motivations for individuals. But if any team has the ability to turn it on and get back on track, we have."
The Packers will have a revenge factor working for them, although they're adamant that New York's victory in the postseason is history.
"That's how this business works," nose tackle B.J. Raji said. "People tend to remember the last thing that happened, not the journey or how you got there. I understand that part of it. What's done is done, just leave it at that."
The Packers can't afford a letdown. They enter the week a game ahead of the Giants in the overall NFC standings and tied with the Bears stop the NFC North.
"They're an NFC team that, depending on how we do, we might be fighting for a wild-card spot," Raji said. "You never know how the season unwinds, so it's a big game from that standpoint. Obviously it's a Sunday night football game, so that tells you a lot about the game. Besides that, it's just another football game that we're trying to win."
AP National Writer Nancy Armour in Green Bay, Wis. contributed to this story.
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