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Landon Collins aced his early NFL tests. Now comes his toughest one

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A year ago the Giants safety was a rookie learning the ropes. Now, he’s a Pro Bowler facing off against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.

Chicago Bears v New York Giants Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — What’s in a name?

Well, the Giants secondary has a new one — NYPD. New York’s pass defense has helped ignite the Giants to the NFL’s fewest offensive touchdowns allowed (25).

Giants safety Landon Collins has a few old nicknames — "Money," "21 Savage," "Hollywood," "LC" ...

Are there more?

"No," he answered, chuckling. "That’s plenty."

As Collins prepares for his first NFL playoff game at Green Bay on Sunday, his teammates offer more tags for him. Linebacker J.T. Thomas III called him an all-star, a player with a natural knack for the ball, a punisher with some "dog" in him.

"You can call him Pro Bowler now," linebacker Keenan Robinson suggested.

Defensive end Olivier Vernon proposed: "How about the defensive MVP of the league? That’s who he is."

* * *

What’s in a name?

Landon Collins mulled that before he was drafted in 2015 and again after his rookie season. He thought he would be a first-round pick. The Giants traded up to make him the first pick of the second round, the 33rd overall selection. He had left the University of Alabama after his junior year. He started all 16 games as a Giants rookie. But his draft spot and an uneven pro start left Collins discontented. None of it was good enough for this New Orleans-born safety who turns 23 on Tuesday.

"It was all a mindset, as far as I was concerned," Collins said. "I was hesitant my first year. I didn’t know what to do and how to do it without thinking too much first. I committed myself to OTAs and a lot of work this offseason to getting my feet more underneath me and getting my mind right. This was the season I was looking for, the one I was counting on."

A season unlike any other NFL defender — he is the only player who made five-plus interceptions and four-plus sacks. He finished second among all safeties with 125 tackles.

Landon Collins has played a remarkable in-your-face-at-the-line-of-scrimmage, nipping-on-your-heels-on-the-back-end, and terror-in-between brand of safety this season.

"When you see the ball, you see Landon," Giants receiver Sterling Sheppard said.

"I hear a lot of people say he reminds them of Sean Taylor," Giants receiver/returner Dwayne Harris said of the deceased Washington iconic safety.

Cornerback Trevin Wade said Collins creates fire on the Giants defense: "He is real determined, he pulls things together. He will tell me and DRC (cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie) before every game, ‘I need more!’ And then he’ll tell us, ‘I’m gonna get more!’”

Robinson explained: "He’s not the captain of the defense. (Linebacker) Tony (Casillas) is. But Landon is still a young, hungry leader who we all trust. He gets people in the secondary in the right places. He is definitely one of our best defensive communicators."

Collins must be, according to Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

Spagnuolo said there were varied ways he wanted to use Collins last season that Collins was not ready to execute. Spagnuolo held back. This season, he moves Collins freely and has awarded him a bushel of on-field commands and responsibilities.

Spangnuolo said every day he spends plenty of one-on-one time with Collins. Collins and "Mike" linebackers Robinson and Kelvin Sheppard are the on-field play callers for Spagnuolo, his coordinators on the field. He must be in sync with them, he said.

He admires Collins’ leap from rookie to Pro Bowler to likely All-Pro status later this week.

"Landon is still in a growth process, but he has made a quite a leap," Spagnuolo said. "He has taken his talent and matched it with thinking of the intricacies of not only what offenses do but what defenses do. He is a tackling machine. He has a physical game that our guys feed off of. He has what I call ‘Football Get It.’ He is not going to do everything right. But what he does is go 100 miles per hour and uses his instincts and makes a lot of plays that win games.

"We know that (Packers quarterback) Aaron Rodgers is playing very well. We know that Packers offense is. Landon’s two biggest responsibilities in this game is to tackle. He’s really good at it, can be physically violent at it, and we need that to continue. Then, he is the safety. He has to prevent the deep explosive plays. He has to keep things from going over the top."

Up, back, with verve. A huge job for this 6’0, 216-pound safety.

But his peers across the league know he can do it.

* * *

They approach him now, opposing players and coaches, and talk to him about their admiration for his effort and his game. They recognize his commitment. His rise.

"I got a lot of that last week against Washington," Collins said. "They even look at me differently, in a different way, before even speaking. Then I got a lot of congratulations on the season. And in the game when I had a late hit on one of them, one of their vets told me: ‘Hey, look kid, you’re a Pro Bowler now. You’re a big-time player, so clean that up.’ I understood. I took that to heart. It wasn’t a mistake made on purpose. But I got it."

He gets that he has created a new name for himself.

The Giants will not defeat Rodgers and the Packers if the Giants can’t win on third-down defense. The Packers are offensively built to sustain long drives with Rodgers’ timely scrambles and lively arm. Win on third down against the Packers and the entire Packers offense crumbles.

Third downs are where Collins could make the most critical impact in this playoff game.

But there are other places.

Giants rookie safety Andrew Adams, who starts alongside Collins, said: "It’s absolutely true that LC has helped me learn this defense and how to play it. One of the greatest pieces of knowledge he’s passed on to me is how you have to know who you are playing with. With certain of our cornerbacks in, you have to shade or approach things a certain way; if this linebacker is in, you have to adjust what you do because his drop is usually deeper than others. Adjusting your game to the guy next to you; I’ve learned that from LC and its helped us become a defense that plays together and plays off each other."

Imagine that — in one year, Landon Collins has gone from absorbing the Giants defense to teaching it. From pupil to instructor.

To creating a name for himself that the league respects.

"All I can say to that is, it’s humbling," Collins said.

He has taken licks and earned stripes and yearns for greatness. And, good for the Giants, loves sharing it all.