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First Look: Giants-Packers NFC title game

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Just like the AFC Championship Game, Sunday's title matchup in the senior conference features a couple of teams that played each other on Sept. 16, in the second weekend of the regular season. The Packers went to the Meadowlands that day and ambushed the Giants, 35-13, as quarterback Brett Favre threw for 286 yards and three touchdowns.

Favre was just starting to warm up at that early juncture of the season. At the same time, the New York defense, reshaped by first-year coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, was ice-cold. It wasn't until after that loss, which got the Giants off to an 0-2 start, that the unit really began to grasp Spagnuolo's principles. The pass rush eventually would crank up to lead the NFL in sacks with 52.

Four months later, the Giants are still attacking the pocket and Favre is still attacking secondaries, but there have been changes. Each team has discovered playmakers it didn't know existed on its roster. And for the Giants, quarterback Eli Manning -- the Manning brother who didn't figure to be playing in a conference championship game on Sunday -- has taken on a more prominent leadership role, maturing into a player who can manage games.

"He keeps answering the doubters," wide receiver Plaxico Burress said after the Giants' 21-17 upset victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Sunday's divisional-round game.

And so do we. So here are five early questions about the NFC Championship Game:

1. Unlike his older brother, Manning seems to be so up and down, and it's difficult to predict which Eli will show up. Has he finally reached a level of consistency?

Never underestimate confidence. That's one notable component of Manning's recent success. He seems much more confident in himself and his receivers the past three or four games.

Of course, as is the case with all quarterbacks, you look a whole lot better when your teammates are out there making plays for you. Wide receivers Burress and Amani Toomer have been constants all year. And the Giants have gotten solid production from their three tailbacks.

But in the past month, rookie wide receiver Steve Smith, slowed by injuries most of the year, has started to come up big. In Sunday's upset victory at Dallas, Manning kept going back to Smith in clutch, third-down situations, and the former Southern California star displayed good maturity and playmaking skills.
Another rookie, fifth-round tight end Kevin Boss, who replaced injured Jeremy Shockey, has made timely catches.

More than any other player, though, Manning's ascent is up to, well, Manning himself. He has reduced his turnovers, managed games well and played within himself, rather than forcing the issue.

With Manning, it's always been tough to say that he has arrived because he historically has followed strong performances with some slippage. But for every successful quarterback, there comes a time when the game actually seems to slow down, when overall vision and field presence add that nebulous peripheral element that sets apart the really good ones from the pretty good ones.

There is certainly a mounting body of evidence that, in his fourth season, Manning has reached that critical nexus of his career.

2. OK, even if we buy that, there's still no way Manning can top Favre at Lambeau Field, is there?

Hey, having seen the Giants play toe-to-toe with New England in the regular-season finale, then win at Tampa Bay and Dallas, we're not going to underestimate this team. Sometimes a club just catches lightning in a bottle, rises to the occasion, and gets hot at the most opportune time of year.

If happened with Pittsburgh two years ago, and the Steelers rode the wave all the way to a Super Bowl XL championship.
But it seems this is more a question about Favre, and his re-emergence this season, than it is about Manning and the Giants and their chances for another unlikely upset.

It might be hard to fathom how a guy in his 17th season could still get better, but Favre has. The hiring of Mike McCarthy last year was a boon for his career because the Green Bay coach is a "quarterback guy," accustomed to working with players who have a big dose of ego and might not want to be coached very much.

McCarthy came in and didn't let Favre's résumé blind him. He coached some of the gunslinger mentality out of Favre, forced him to make better decisions, but also made a few minor concessions along the way. No matter their stature in the league, most guys want to be coached, and Favre certainly was receptive to a lot of McCarthy's ideas.

The far more mystifying turnaround is in Favre's ability to throw the deep ball again, and with uncanny accuracy, to his wide receivers. It's as though Favre, at 38, has dipped his right arm in a fountain of youth. And, of course, he's still capable of making the crazy, improvisational play, like his underhand toss to tight end Donald Lee in Saturday's snowy victory.

3. Yeah, well, all that stuff about Favre aside, he still can't throw the ball if he's on his backside, right?

Well, the ability of the Packers' offensive line to protect Favre against the Giants' ferocious pass rush certainly will be one of the keys.

Because the Packers aren't on national television that much, casual fans might not realize that Green Bay has one of the best tackle tandems in the league: Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher.

Neither is a prototype of what scouts normally are seeking at their respective positions. Tauscher is hardly the strongside mauler teams covet at right tackle, and Clifton doesn't look as though he possesses enough foot quickness to seal off the blind side. But the pair has been together for eight seasons, both coming to the team in the 2000 draft, and the two really are excellent.

One of them, though, will have his hands full with Giants end Osi Umenyiora, who usually aligns on the right side but moved all over the place in Sunday's win at Dallas, and who absolutely took over the game in the last few Cowboys possessions.

And here's a wild card to throw into the mix: the Giants' No. 3 end, Justin Tuck, who was not a starter this season but still had 10 sacks, one more than Michael Strahan. New York substitutes liberally on the defensive line, and Spagnuolo uses all three ends in his nickel package, so Tuck gets a lot of pass-rush opportunities. And many of them come against slower guards because he often moves inside to tackle on third down.

That's where the New York pass rush might be a bigger challenge for the Packers' offensive line. The guard positions have been unsettled in Green Bay much of the season. This would be a good week to get that position straightened out.

4. So I flipped on the TV on Saturday afternoon and saw this guy named Ryan Grant playing for the Packers and running through both the snow and the Seahawks' defense, and it struck me that I knew nothing about him. Where the heck did he come from?

Coincidentally, he came from the Giants, who were so deep at tailback coming out of the preseason that they dealt him to the desperate Packers on Sept. 1 for a sixth-round pick.
Kind of an odd coincidence, huh? That the New York defense is going to have to contend with a player the Giants knew from training camp, one the team surrendered in what was pretty much a giveaway trade.

Grant originally signed with New York as an undrafted free agent out of Notre Dame in 2005. He spent most of that season on the Giants' practice squad and all of 2006 on the non-football injury list with a fractured hand.

Because the Giants' depth chart already featured Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Reuben Droughns, there was no room for Grant on the roster, thus the deal. Hard to blame the New York brass for making the trade.

Grant began the season on the Green Bay bench, but when rookies Brandon Jackson and DeShawn Wynn were injured, he landed the starting job basically by default. And despite starting just eight games, he ran for 956 yards and eight touchdowns.

The Packers love his toughness and explosiveness and, after Saturday, they have to like his resilience, too. The kid bounced back from two early fumbles that handed Seattle a 14-0 lead to run for 201 yards.

In the regular-season meeting between the two teams, Grant played sparingly. He didn't log a single carry, and his lone contribution to the Packers' offense was a 21-yard reception. Bet the mortgage he's going to have a significantly bigger role Sunday.

5. A couple of key matchups, please.

Given the battered condition of the Giants' secondary, it's going to be difficult for the unit to hold up if the Packers go to a lot of three-receiver sets.

As noted earlier, Favre is throwing the heck out of the deep ball. And though veteran Green Bay wideout Donald Driver is more a dependable receiver than a deep threat in his ninth season, a pair of young guys -- second-year pro Greg Jennings and rookie James Jones -- both exude big-play mind-sets.

Jones is a burner, but it's Jennings who plays much quicker than his stopwatch speed, and he has become Favre's go-to guy when the quarterback decides to go down the field. He has averaged nearly 30 yards per touchdown catch.

So the crippled New York secondary versus the Packers' spread looks is one matchup to watch.

Another critical one is how well the New York offensive line handles the Green Bay front seven. The Packers have a lot of depth on the defensive line, and their linebackers are very active.

Middle linebacker Nick Barnett will be a revelation for those who haven't seen him play before. And left end Aaron Kampman, a self-made player, is one of the best two-way defenders in the league. He figures to be a tall test for Giants right tackle Kareem McKenzie.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.