Playoff preview: Falcons-Giants
Since the Giants upset the Patriots in an epic Super Bowl on Feb. 3, 2008, they have not won another postseason game. In fact, they've appeared in just one -- a 23-11 divisional round loss to Philadelphia the next season, which was followed by back-to-back years of failing to make the playoffs.
The Falcons' drought is even longer: Atlanta's last postseason victory came over the Rams in the 2004 divisional round, one of just six playoffs wins the Falcons have in their entire franchise history.
Atlanta thought that last year might be its year. A spectacular 13-3 regular season landed the Falcons the NFC's No. 1 overall seed and a first-round bye. But it all came crashing down when the Packers stormed into Atlanta and blew out the home team, 48-21, en route to a Super Bowl championship.
Maybe Atlanta will fare better as the road underdog. Or maybe the Giants are primed for another playoff breakthrough. Either way, something has to give Sunday.
New York's Justin Tuck had some choice words this week when he was asked about the reputation of Atlanta's offensive line.
"Most people, you would call them dirtbags," Tuck said. "But it is what it is. We got to make sure we do our job, and if we are doing our job well then they will be upset and they will be trying to do things to get us off our game, and we got to take that as a compliment.
"But in the same sense you got to protect yourself and hopefully the referees have 20/20 vision this week."
Consider the gauntlet thrown down.
No matter what tactics the Falcons' big boys up front use Sunday, they'll have their work cut out for them. That's especially true for Atlanta's tackles, Tyson Clabo on the right side and Will Svitek on the left.
That duo has to find some way to deal with Tuck, Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora -- the Giants' three-headed, pass-rushing monster at defensive end. Between them, Tuck, Pierre-Paul and Umenyiora combined for 25.5 sacks this season, with 16.5 of those coming from Pierre-Paul, one of the NFL's emerging superstars.
The last time a national-TV audience saw Clabo, he was getting obliterated by New Orleans' Junior Galette during a 45-16 Saints win on the day after Christmas. Clabo will have to be much, much better than that Sunday, and Svitek will have to hold up his end of the bargain too. If the Giants are able to run laps around Atlanta's tackles, Matt Ryan and the offense won't have a chance.
Everyone expected Julio Jones to be a formidable offensive threat this season, after the Falcons traded up to take him in last April's draft. The same cannot be said for Victor Cruz, a relative unknown who fought for his spot on the Giants' roster during training camp.
No matter the paths taken by Jones and Cruz, they've both developed into dynamic weapons for their respective offenses -- and at 22 and 25, respectively, figure to stay that way for seasons to come.
Cruz's emergence has been particularly impressive. Undrafted out of Massachusetts, Cruz signed on with the Giants before the 2010 season, then missed almost the entire year after landing on injured reserve. He finally broke into the every-week lineup early in 2011 and quickly became Eli Manning's go-to target.
With an incredible six-catch, 178-yard effort in New York's critical Week 17 win over Dallas, Cruz bumped his season totals up to 82 receptions for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns. The yardage total was the third-best number in the league, behind only Calvin Johnson and Wes Welker.
Jones, meanwhile, reeled in 54 receptions for 959 yards and nine TDs, despite missing three full games and parts of several others with nagging hamstring injuries. Six of his nine scores came over the season's final four weeks, as Jones found a consistent groove -- especially downfield -- with Ryan.
Both guys will create matchup problems Sunday, especially if Ryan and Eli Manning have time to throw, thus allowing Jones and Cruz to get deep. This is the first playoff appearance for these two standout receivers, but it won't be the last.
How imperative is it for New York to establish the run Sunday? Well, in the eight games this season that they hit 100 yards rushing, the Giants finished an impressive 7-1. But when they failed to get to the century mark, they were 2-6.
A healthy Ahmad Bradshaw should help -- three of the Giants' sub-100 games (all losses) came with their No. 1 running back on the shelf. He may not be in tip-top shape, but he's still the best running threat New York has.
Here's a look at how the Giants have fared when the run game has rolled up 100-plus yards.
Everyone seems eager to dub the Giants a major threat in the NFC, but the Falcons have looked plenty dangerous themselves lately. Atlanta enters Sunday with wins in three of its last four games and seven of its last 10 -- with two losses to New Orleans and a loss at Houston being the only blips.
Neither defense is very imposing here. Atlanta was 18th in points allowed and 20th against the pass, while the Giants ranked 25th and 29th in those two categories.
The difference defensively is that the Giants do have a potentially game-changing pass rush. Ryan and his plethora of offensive weapons will put up some points, just as Manning's loaded attack will. But the New York D-line and a charged-up Meadowlands crowd will be enough to move the G-men on to round two.