Difference-makers: Chase Blackburn

The New York Giants you see before you -- a team that has made it to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs -- are not the same New York Giants we watched for most of this season. Their enthusiasm and effectiveness bear little, if any, resemblance to that of the team that lost five of six games from mid-November to mid-December. What's the difference? Well, there are many. And each day this week, leading up to the playoff game Sunday in Green Bay, we'll take a look at a player or players who have helped turn these Giants from a mid-pack pretender to a Final Eight contender.

Today: LB Chase Blackburn

The Giants decided not to bring back Blackburn last offseason opting instead to go with a rookie corps at linebacker even once Jonathan Goff and Clint Sintim went down with preseason injuries. But the November injuries to Michael Boley and Mark Herzlich were too much, and so the Giants called their old friend and brought him back Nov. 29. He started the very next game -- the one against the Packers on Dec. 4 -- and came up with an interception of Aaron Rodgers. He wasn't even on the flip card yet, and he wasn't wearing his old uniform number. A week earlier, he was working out the details of a substitute math teaching gig in Ohio. It's possible his was the most surprising interception Rodgers threw all season.

"I think he'll know who No. 93 is this time," Blackburn said earlier this week.

Blackburn's return has brought stability to the Giants' middle linebacker position, which never attained that following the Goff injury. Rookies Greg Jones, Jacquian Williams and Herzlich all took their turns in the middle, but things remained unsettled, as they often do with rookies, and the Giants suffered for it. Had Herzlich not injured his ankle, they might have continued to roll with the rookies. They take the middle linebacker off the field on passing downs anyway, and they don't view it as the most essential position in their defensive scheme.

But having Blackburn back and manning the middle has helped in ways the Giants didn't foresee. The most important element he brings is familiarity. He's played here before. He knows the scheme, the system, the terminology.

"Think about it," Boley said. "You bring in a guy in Week 13 and he's never been here before, he has to spend a lot of time just learning what things are called. He's catching up. But with Chase, there was no catching up. The stuff we do is exactly the same as it was when he was here before. So he just slid right in."

The Giants' defense still runs off the big guys up front -- the four-man pass rush. And the play of the secondary is likely to matter more and get more attention this week in the playoff game in Green Bay. But Blackburn's contribution since he arrived Week 13 has been quietly significant, if for no other reason that it's allowed the Giants to stop moving pieces around as much as they were before he returned. He's made plays. He's fit in. He's been everything the Giants needed when they went out looking for a substitute linebacker in late November. And more, almost certainly, than they expected.