EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — While everyone may be looking for Eli Manning to get back on track and right the New York Giants' offense, the solution might be a little farther away from center.
The key may be wide receiver Hakeem Nicks and what he does for the Giants (6-4) against the Green Bay Packers (7-3) on Sunday night.
Nicks has been one of the major big-play components of the offense for the past three seasons, whether it's catching the long ball or turning a short pass into a lot more. Over the past two seasons, he has caught 155 passes for 2,244 yards and 18 touchdowns. The former first-round draft pick added four more TDs in the Super Bowl run.
This year, however, has been frustrating. Nicks broke his foot in minicamp in May and then banged up his knee in a 10-catch, 199-yard-performance against Tampa Bay in the second game of the season. He missed three games and struggled until the Giants' 31-13 loss to Cincinnati in the final game before last week's bye.
Nicks started to show signs he was emerging against the Bengals, catching nine passes for 75 yards— four fewer receptions than he had in the previous four games combined. With an extra week to heal, the fourth-year wideout is close to being 100 percent.
Nicks smiled when asked if the offense would take off when he did.
"We're going to see," Nicks said. "I think I didn't elevate my game, but I think that is going to come."
Nicks said the injuries prevented him from running past defenders and left him wary about planting and cutting during his routes. The result can be seen in his statistics — 36 catches for 465 yards, a 12.9-yard average, and one touchdown in seven games.
"If he is right, it would help tremendously," fullback Henry Hynoski said. "Hakeem is a dynamic player and everyone knows that. Having to make defenses key on him makes a big difference."
Many of his teammates said Nicks probably played when other guys would have taken time off.
A healthy Nicks puts defenses in a tough spot. Victor Cruz has drawn more of the double coverages with Nicks hurt, and opposing teams have even loaded the box to stop the run knowing they didn't have to worry about two big-play threats.
"All you have to do is look at what he did last year," backup quarterback David Carr said. "You have Victor, and he is drawing a lot of double teams, but if you have another guy, like Hakeem, that draws the same type of double team, it's kind of hard to stop the run and the other guys that we have. It makes it difficult for defenses."
The Packers should know something about that. In the NFC semifinal in January, Nicks had seven catches for 165 yards and two of Manning's three touchdowns. His biggest play was a 66-yard TD catch in the first quarter, but he also hauled in a 37-yard Hail Mary surrounded by defenders at the end of the first half in New York's 37-20 win.
"It actually was a great weekend for me. It was a birthday weekend for me, too," Nicks said.
Nicks said the pass at the end of half was the first time he had ever caught a heave into the end zone like that.
"It's something we practice, end of half or end of game play," Nicks said. "You know, you run to the landmarks and Eli throws it up and the jump man goes up and makes a catch. I just came down with it."
That catch would put the Giants ahead by 10 points, and it seemed to deflate the Packers, who enter this week riding a five-game winning streak and tied with Chicago for the NFC North lead.
New York, meanwhile, has lost two straight and holds a tenuous lead over Dallas in the NFC East. But the Giants have had a habit of stepping up when needed.
"I think it just lit the fire that we have within us," Nicks said. "We know it's (the playoffs) close enough within reach and we want to try our best to get that W, and we depend on each other to get it done."
Coming off a bye, the Giants will have another advantage. They have spent a week self-scouting the offense, and there are bound to be tweaks that might surprise the Packers.
"We seem to play a lot of teams coming back from a bye," Green Bay cornerback Tramon Williams said. "We don't think it'll change that much, but we definitely expect to see unscouted looks."
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