Saturday, January 7, 2012 Wildcard Playoff Game Preview: New York Giants vs. Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at New York Giants (9-7), 1 p.m. Sunday, MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey
By Ben Kelly - 1/7/12

What happened last week
The Falcons obliterated the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Atlanta by a score of 45-24, carrying a 42-0 lead into halftime. The loss was Tampa Bay’s tenth straight and also the final showcase of young head coach Raheem Morris, fired afterwards following after spending three seasons with the team. Tampa Bay allowed 40.3 points over its last five games, but don’t discount Atlanta’s performance for that reason. Holding a 42-0 halftime lead should only take place between LSU and the SCLSU Mud Dogs, not in the NFL. The Falcons impressed on all offensive parts. Running back Michael Turner rushed for 172 yards and two scores in the first half alone and quarterback Matt Ryan was pulled before the end of the first half. But perhaps a more telling score is Atlanta’s result in week sixteen, a critical playoff positioning matchup against the New Orleans Saints which Atlanta lost 45-16, shunning the Falcons into a wildcard slot at the Meadowlands.

Look who’s talking
The Giants have responded well this year to pregame chatter; look no further than the week sixteen showdown between Rex Ryan’s Jets in the battle for New York. Trash talk is entertaining for sports talk shows, but when the game is on the line, no player remembers the he said-she said drama during the week. This week however, the Giants earned the role of instigator by throwing fire at the Falcons’ offensive line. Justin Tuck’s comments brought attention to Atlanta’s unknown cast of characters on the offensive line, a group that even Ndamukong Suh called dirty. Tuck used “dirtbags” to describe Atlanta’s quality of offensive linemen, inciting the referees to anticipate Atlanta’s cut blocks, a tactic often used to aggravate and defuse an aggressive defensive front like New York’s. Both lines enter the match with impressive track records in recent weeks. Atlanta has allowed just one sack in the past three games, including two straight games without a sack of quarterback Matt Ryan, who’s posted two quarterback ratings over 130 and completed 68% of his passes in that span. The Giants meanwhile are coming off a six-sack performance against Dallas in the play-in game last week and recorded five sacks a week earlier against the Jets. Absent in the Giants’ recent loss to Washington was a consistent pass rush; Jason Pierre-Paul recorded the only sack of Rex Grossman. The Giants’ healthy stockade of pass rushers versus Atlanta’s chippy line will be the game’s biggest encounter, from the opening series until the final gun.

Nicks or Cruz?
Eli Manning ought to have plenty of time to make decisions in the pocket against Atlanta. The Falcons pass rushers rank nineteenth in sacks with 33 on the season, 15 behind the third-ranked Giants. Manning will have time to throw, placing the effectiveness of the passing game into the hands of Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, who must sneak past Atlanta’s talented corner back tandem in Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson. Neither Cruz nor Nicks would claim to be the Giants best receiver. Cruz’s star-powered emergence and production stole the spotlight from Nicks, who modestly hauled in 1,192 yards of his own in another record setting year for Eli Manning. Inevitably, one of New York’s star receivers will steal the show. Will Cruz make it a three-peat performance by another 70+ yard sideline-scamper touchdown in front of a Meadowlands crowd?

Make it three straight
The Giants are a team coming together at the right time of the season. Osi Umenyiora’s week seventeen return is the perfect highlight of a time finalizing a playoff roster. His two sacks of Tony Romo signaled his reemergence into the lineup, and Osi will undoubtedly play a big role in getting after Matt Ryan. A healthy running back corps between Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs offers the bruising complement to Eli Manning’s chart-topping explosive offense. It doesn’t matter now that the Giants produced the league’s worst rushing attack this season; we know the Jacobs and Bradshaw tandem are capable of punishing a defense early, often and late. The pieces are all in place for the Giants to make a playoff run, but Atlanta enters the weekend with the same confidence. Head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan share an 0-2 playoff record, and this season could be the year they make it over the hump with a victory over the Giants. But the third time will not be the charm for the Atlanta Falcons. Three instead is the number for New York’s three-headed monster on the defensive line: Tuck, Jason (MV) Pierre-Paul and the invigorated Umenyiora. Giants sack the Dirtybirds, 27-14.

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