For the majority of Sunday’s NFC wild-card game between the Falcons and Giants, the real winners appeared to be the Packers, who were resting and awaiting the victor of a somewhat sloppy contest.
But then the Giants started making big plays on both sides of the ball, pulling away in the second half to easily defeat a flat Atlanta team and further reminding us of the 2007 squad that rose up to make a startling Super Bowl run that didn’t end until Eli Manning was lifting the Lombardi Trophy to give us one of the most oxymoronic images in the history of professional football.
Some Packers will likely be reminded that, in that very year, the Giants ended Green Bay’s season at Lambeau with an overtime victory over a Brett Favre-led team. A lot has changed since then, but it might be enough to cause some unease.
We knew going in that both the Giants and Falcons lacked consistency. And we also knew that New York was as unpredictable at home as Atlanta was on the road. And so it would be bizarre to suggest that anyone had a beat on this game.
But as I wrote on Thursday, if it boiled down to X’s and O’s, it would probably be about who could make more big plays, who could balance the pass with the run and who could protect the quarterback with the most success.
On Sunday, the Giants made more plays. It started with their first scoring drive of the game, when Manning scrambled for a season-high 14 yards on third down to keep the drive moving. It continued on their second scoring drive with a 22-yard completion from Manning to Victor Cruz on third down-and-long, followed by a 30-yard run from Ahmad Bradshaw to set up a field goal. And the icing on the cake, of course, was that 72-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Hakeem Nicks that put the game away.
On Sunday, the Giants were more balanced. Not that we couldn’t necessarily see this coming, because Michael Turner had struggled lately and was a virtual non-factor today. But few expected Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs to combine for over 150 yards against the supposedly stout Atlanta run defense.
And on Sunday, the Giants didn’t allow an on-point Atlanta pass rush rattle them. The pass protection wasn’t necessarily better than Atlanta’s, but Manning displayed an exceptional ability to recognize, and escape from, quality pressure from the Falcons. While Atlanta got its only two points as a result of the pressure placed on Manning in the end zone, he took only one sack. Ultimately, neither pass rush made a significant impact on the game.
The Giants ended up dominating this game in pretty much every metric, including the unquantifiable category of coaching, where Mike Smith went for it twice in New York territory on fourth-and-short, failing to convert on both occasions. And Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey’s decision to go with an empty backfield (read: no Michael Turner) on the second attempt surely baffled anyone watching, up to and including the Mularkey family (that won’t help his head-coaching résumé).
Falcons fans will make excuses. They didn’t have top corner Brent Grimes on a day in which the Giants were extremely efficient through the air, and those game-changing fourth-down failures are causing some to wonder if kicker Matt Bryant was hurt. But let’s face it: Atlanta had no business winning this game.
Jason Pierre-Paul missed some time for the Giants, as did Aaron Ross. The Falcons failed to take advantage.
The Giants went three-and-out on back-to-back drives to start the game. The Falcons failed to take advantage.
The Giants screwed up badly at the end of the first half, running a play on third-and-short rather than asking for a measurement after a terrible spot, and failing to convert before punting to give Atlanta life. The Falcons failed to take advantage.
And so the playoff monkey is still on Matt Ryan’s back. No excuses.
And now we have Giants-Packers at Lambeau again. Considering what happened the last time they met in the playoffs and what happened when they met during the 2011 regular season, that’s probably better for all of us.