And now we turn to the most unpredictable game of wild-card weekend, as two of the league’s least consistent teases go head-to-head at MetLife Stadium.
The top storylines:
1. Matt Ryan looks to take the next step. It’s his fourth year in the league, and he’s yet to win a playoff game. If it doesn’t happen now, he’ll risk developing Alex Rodriguez Syndrome.
2. Eli Manning and the Giants look to regain the magic from 2007. They won the Super Bowl as a wild-card team that barely snuck into the playoffs that year. This year, they’re a division champ, but with a similar feel.
3. Can the Falcons finally make big plays? A lack of home-run ability on offense and a lack of aggressiveness on defense cost them as the NFC’s top seed in last year’s playoffs. The addition of Ray Edwards and Julio Jones was supposed to help. We’ll see if that’s the case when it matters most on Sunday.
The last time they met…
- It hardly matters because it took place in 2009 (ancient history in the NFL) but the 5-4 Giants beat the 5-4 Falcons in a 34-31 overtime shootout at the Meadowlands.
- The Giants outgained the Falcons by over 100 yards and were more efficient through the air and on the ground. Turnovers weren’t a problem either. The only reason the game went to overtime: penalties. New York was penalized eight times to the tune of 64 yards, while Atlanta took only three penalties for a total of 16 yards.
Injuries to watch:
- The Falcons are very banged up, with Brent Grimes, Sean Weatherspoon, Michael Turner, Harry Douglas, Julio Jones, Roddy White, William Moore and Curtis Lofton all dealing with injuries and limited this week. But all of them should play Sunday.
- The Giants are healthier than they’ve been all year, with just Ahmad Bradshaw missing practices at this point. Jake Ballard and Osi Umenyiora are less than 100 percent, though.
I’m reluctantly taking the Giants, but I’m not confident in the pick at all. Here are the factors at play for me:
1. Question: What do the Falcons do really well? I mean, they don’t suck anything, which is all well and good. But seriously, this is a team that seems to be just slightly better than average at doing almost everything. Is that the recipe for playoff success? Probably not.
2. The problem for the Giants: They do a lot of things worse than Atlanta. They’re not as good on the ground and not as good defensively through the air and they aren’t as good at stopping the run and they commit more turnovers on offense. But, they’re one of the best pass-rushing teams in the league. The fierce front seven is why I was convinced the Giants were the pick here for much of the week, and it’s one of the reasons I’m sticking with my original gut feeling.
Here’s the problem: Atlanta doesn’t feel pressure anymore. Not since they finally came to their senses and benched left tackle Sam Baker six games into the season. With Will Svitek starting on Ryan’s blind side, the Falcons have arguably had the best pass protection in football. Some numbers: the Falcons have surrendered just one sack in three games and just eight sacks in nine games. They gave up 13 sacks during the first three games of the season and have surrendered just 13 in the 13 games they’ve played since.
They’ve even held two elite pass-rushing teams — the Vikings and the Texans — to just two total sacks in eight quarters. The key has been their ability to keep defenses on their heals with one of the most efficient no-huddle attacks in the league.
So what Atlanta does best is essentially repressing what New York does best. Fun for viewers. Frustrating for bettors.
3. So if both quarterbacks have room to work (and I expect that to be the case), who has the advantage? Manning has a higher ceiling within games, it seems, but he also is prone to becoming a turnover machine. And although Victor Cruz is arguably the hottest receiver in football, I’d say Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez have the ability to create more mismatches against the Giants’ bad secondary.
4. But if it comes down to big plays…then the Falcons could be in trouble. See, I expect Atlanta to sustain drives better than the Giants, but New York had a league-high 18 completions of 40-plus yards during the regular season, while only four teams surrendered more of those completions than the Falcons. And a major qualifier for point No. 3 is the health of Grimes, who as of Thursday was yet to practice this week for Atlanta. Despite his contract, Dunta Robinson is a below-average cover corner, so a healthy Grimes might be a game-changer here.
5. Okay, let’s continue to go back and forth. The Falcons have a bad rep for playoff failures. There was that embarrassing loss to the Packers at home last year and there was that somewhat surprising loss to the Cardinals in 2008. Ryan has four picks and a 71.2 rating in two playoff games. This Giants team, meanwhile, has the same quarterback and a similar feel to the one that won the Lombardi Trophy only four years ago.
6. But the Giants don’t have much of a home-field advantage. They were 4-4 at MetLife this year, with losses to inferior teams Seattle, Philadelphia and Washington.
7. Unfortunately, the Falcons have struggled on the road in the Matt Ryan/Mike Smith era. They’re only 17-16 including the playoffs away from home since the start of 2008.
8. Maybe the difference will come down to who can balance the pass with success on the ground. And that’s where I get really confused. Michael Turner doesn’t scare anyone, and he hasn’t exactly been red hot. Atlanta hadn’t rushed for 100 yards in a game since Nov. 20 before Turner and Co. broke free against the terrible Bucs in Week 17, but the Giants gave up a below-average 4.5 yards per carry during the regular season.
As far as New York goes, Ahmad Bradshaw’s still ailing and I don’t trust Brandon Jacobs, but they’ve gone over 100 yards in four of the last five weeks. Then again, the Giants might have serious problems on runs and checkdowns against the Falcons’ speedy front seven.
In conclusion, the Giants are healthier, hotter, at home and have more playmakers on both sides of the ball. Plus, they have a better playoff pedigree. I have no idea which version of which team will emerge on Sunday, but for the reasons listed above, I’m siding with New York in a close, high-scoring game.
GLS prediction: Giants 27, Falcons 24
(Last year’s playoff GLS playoff record: 9-2 straight up and 9-2 against the spread)