Wildcard Game Preview : Falcons at Giants

The New York Giants host the Atlanta Falcons at Metlife Stadium for Round One of the NFC Playoffs. It is both franchise’s first meeting in the post-season.

The Giants have been flying high after defeating their cross town rivals and “America’s team”, the Cowboys, last week on prime time and earning their first trip to the post season since 2008. The Giants recent surge has prompted Twitter’s favorite joke : This is the third week in the row the Giants match-up against someone whose last name is Ryan.

Hahaha. How funny. But, seriously, as far as similarities go, they end with the last name.

The Falcons are looking to right the ship after a one-and-done trip to the post season last year. The earned the right to play the Giants, not their divisional-rivals the Saints, in a 45-24 win over the Bucs.

This is the Falcons fourth straight winning season and the first back to back trip to the playoffs in franchise history.

I believe these teams are very evenly matched and that Atlanta is being largely underestimated by the national media, which gives me pause. There is much more to this game than meets the eye, and I’ve outlined the major aspects of the game and examined how these two teams stack up head-to-head. (And I will just go ahead and give you fair warning : You’re going to hear the words ‘pass rush’ a lot).

The Quarterbacks

Matt Ryan - Ryan has played excellent in the second half of the season after starting off pretty slow, perhaps because he was finally able to get both Roddy White and Julio Jones together on the same field.

In spite of breaking the Falcons franchise record for passing yards in a season, critics point to Ryan’s 0-2 playoff record as a huge mark against him. A playoff win could help push Ryan into that next tier of quarterbacks.

Ryan really needs time to make his throws. If he has to wait too long for something to happen, he is more prone to bad decisions and mistakes. He will need to be well protected to be effective.

Eli Manning - Eli is having one of the best season’s of his career and finally inserting himself into the elite conversation that has normally been dominated by his brother.

Eli and his receivers are averaging the 5th most passing yards per game in the league. It will be interesting to see how the Falcons chose to defend Eli; if you blitz him, like the Cowboys did last week, he will pick you apart.

Though Eli has played at an extremely high level this season, he still has a tendency to force throws at times and get picked off. Eli has three 2+ INT games this season. The Giants lost all three.

Advantage : Eli. Slightly. I will add that if Ryan can be effective against the Giants pass rush, it could be the difference in the game.

The Running Game

Falcons – Turner hasn’t quite been himself since he injured his groin a few weeks ago but he is still the focal point of the offense. Mike Smith knows this team has to run the ball first in order to be effective and they will do just that. The Giants run defense puts this match-up in their favor, even if Turner is a little slow.

Giants – Bradshaw is also an essential part of the Giants offense. When they were without him and Jacobs was forced to carry the load, the Giants were near the bottom of the league in rushing totals. Neither back excels in the passing game and unless the Falcons run defense falls apart, I don’t really see them being a huge factor.

Advantage : Falcons

The Receivers

Falcons – Roddy White is the Falcons all-time leading receiver. He was also the most targeted receiver in the regular season and in targets per a game (11.2), though he did lead the league in drops.

What Julio Jones  has been able to do since returning from his injury is incredible, and is he shaping up to be exactly what they had in mind when the Falcons risked it all to move up and get him. Julio is the deep threat, the big play guy that they were missing. All he needs is to break one tackle and then he is gone. The impact he’s had on the offense is palpable and part of the reason he won December Rookie of the Month.

While their receiving game is potent, it’s essential the Falcons run the ball enough so that they can set up for the play action.

Giants – Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham and Victor Cruz combine for one of the most lethal receiving trios in all of football. All three receivers are very good in the all-important yards after the catch stat- they just have to catch it in the first palce. Sadly, the Giants lead the league in drops.  Imagine what Eli’s stats would have looked like had they not.

The Giants typically run Cruz out of the slot and I would imagine they will do the same here. He has been so dangerous with his speed that can turn one missed tackle into a gigantic play.

Nicks is a little banged up and he has been used primarily as a decoy as of late but his presence alone is enough.

Advantage : Push

Tight Ends

Falcons – Tony Gonzalez has been drinking from the fountain of youth and put together another excellent season for what will probably be a Hall of Fame career. Gonzalez will be essential to Ryan’s success, especially on third down. The Falcons are 6th best in league on 3rd down conversions.

Giants – Jake Ballard should be back for this game but it may not matter. The Falcons defense is quite good not only defending the run, but also in dropping back to defend the short passing game. They have been the best in the NFL at defending opposing tight ends and if the Falcon’s take away the deep ball and force Eli to rely on the short passing game, they will likely win the battle.

Advantage : Falcons

Offensive Line

Falcons – The Falcons Offensive line has struggled a bit in protection this season, but have only given up 7 sacks in the last 6 games, which is part of the reason why we saw Ryan be more effective down the stretch.

They have been great working in tandem with the running game.

Giants – The Giants o line hasn’t been much better and they’ve allowed 7 sacks in the past 3 games. They have also struggled to open things up for the running game.

Advantage : Atlanta, by a hair.

Run Defense

Falcons – Run defense has been quite good all season and finished third overall. They have stopped opposing backs for no gain or a loss on 23 percent of carries, good for second best.

That is due in large part to Sean Witherspoon and LB Curtis Lofton, who both quietly had Pro Bowl caliber years. The Falcons DTs are very underrated and could cause problems for the Giants. They are also quite good dropping back into coverage.

Giants – The Giants run defense is near the bottom of the league but they have had a lot of success against Atlanta’s style of runner (they typically struggle against speedier guys like LeSean McCoy).

Advantage : Falcons

Pass Defense

Falcons - The Falcons typically rush four and drop the rest into zone, so don’t count on seeing the same type of coverage that Rob Ryan’s defense showed last week. I’m not saying it will be successful but that’s their M.O.

John Abraham is their primary pass rusher and he will try to get in Eli’s face and bring him down, but that is pretty much all they have got.

The Atlanta secondary is mostly good, thought inconsistent and can easily be picked apart (see Saints MNF game). Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson will have their work cut out for them against the Giants receivers, especially with Cruz operating out of the slot. Will they ask Grimes to abandon his usual side of the field and stick like glue to Cruz?

Giants  - The Giants pass defense goes through their pass rush, which is one of, if not the best in the league. However, if you can get past it, opportunities await.

The combination of Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre Paul is just scary and they are the biggest factor in the Giants decent turnaround on defense (injuries kept the unit from playing together all season). LB  Mathias Kiwanuka is also a very important piece up front, though he is in on both passing and running plays.

The Giants secondary has really struggled this season between injuries, poor tackling and blown coverages. Corey Webster leads the team in interceptions but opposite of him is Aaron Ross, who is a bad match-up against Julio Jones.

Advantage : Giants pass rush wins out.

Special Teams 

Falcons – Returner Eric Weems has had no where near the season he enjoyed last year but he still consistently gives the offense excellent field position.

Kicker Matt Bryant is very consistent but keep in mind he plays the majority of his games in a dome.

Giants – Punter Steve Weatherford has been phenomenal this season as has kicker Lawrence Tynes.

Advantage : Push.

Key Match-Up : Matt Ryan vs. Giants Pass Rush

As Matt Hamilton, a researcher and writer at NFL Playbook pointed out to me, not only has the Giants pass rush been good, but Osi’s return has given them added versatility and made them even better.

However, Ryan has been extremely productive when running the no-huddle offense this year. If Ryan can key in on the pass rush, make adjustments and call protections, he might be able to get the ball out to Gonazlez or the receivers and hit the Giants where they are weaker in the secondary.

Home Field Advantage (?)

The Falcons play the majority of their games in a dome, which would traditionally give them a disadvantage in the chilly. January air at MetLife Stadium. But Matt Ryan is actually experienced played in cold weather from his college days (he’s also from Philly) and it’s going to be a perfectly pleasant 44 degrees in NY tomorrow. In other words, this perceived “cold weather” factor is being greatly overstated.

Secondly, the Giants have actually won more road games than home games this season (4-4 at home). Eli Manning has also never won a home playoff game and he also throws more interceptions at home. When it comes down to it, that really doesn’t mean much and frankly, who cares, but I just wanted to point out that this alleged “home-field advantage” is really nothing but hype.

Prediction

I’ve been pretty good picking games this year but I’m still going back and forth on this one. Perhaps I am secretely torn by my crush on Julio Jones and my wish for Matt Ryan to win a playoff game, especially after their rough loss last season (And doesn’t that make any pick I make biased?).

In an effort to be fair, I took a Twitter poll to get a feel for what other people had to say

63% believe the Giants will in; 37% picked the Falcons.

I predict the score will be 27-24. Pick a winner and I won’t criticize either decision.

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