Sunday’s rendition of the NFC Wild Card features one team trying to regain its mojo and another team that appears to have already done so, as the Atlanta Falcons (10-6) travel to the Meadowlands to take on the surging New York Giants (9-7).
The Falcons went 13-3 last year and earned the NFC’s top seed before getting blown out in the divisional round 48-21 by Green Bay.
In some ways, the Falcons still haven’t recovered.
Yes, they won 10 games this year, but Atlanta went just 2-4 against teams that finished with a winning record, including 1-4 against teams that made the playoffs. Both of those wins – 23-16 at Detroit in Week 7 and 23-17 against Tennessee in Week 11 – came with slight asterisks, however, as Matthew Stafford and Matt Hasselbeck left each game due to injury. Hasselbeck, in fact, missed much of the second half, including all of the fourth quarter.
Atlanta did go 4-2 over its final six games, but the four wins came against teams with a combined 18-46 record. As for those two losses? Yup, both came against winning teams, including a 45-16 beatdown at New Orleans on Monday Night Football the day after Christmas.
And then there are the Giants. After an up and down season – and by “up and down,” I mean the Giants are responsible for 40 percent of Washington’s wins – New York won the mercurial NFC East by beating the Jets and Cowboys (twice) in what were essentially playoff games during the final month of the season.
As for the Giants’ defensive line, it’s back. Osi Umenyiora returned to action Sunday night against Dallas after spraining his ankle in Week 12. New York, which finished third in the league with 48 sacks, tallied six on Tony Romo that night, including four on four-man rushes. Umenyiora’s return couldn’t have come at a better time; the Giants were mildly dreadful against the pass this year (29th), but dropping seven into coverage can remedy that in a hurry.
Ultimately, this game boils down to a few questions:
Can Michael Turner be effective? Turner finished third in the NFL with 1,340 rushing yards and was tied for sixth with 11 rushing touchdowns. Kudos to him. But before erupting for 172 yards in the Falcons’ regular-season finale against Tampa Bay, Turner was pretty quiet in his previous five outings – 84 carries for 280 yards (3.3 yards per carry) and one touchdown. He failed to hit even the 80-yard mark in any of those games. Might this be because Turner was one of just two backs to surpass 300 carries this year? (He had 301, while Maurice Jones-Drew had 343). The Falcons sure hope not. They’ll need Turner to keep that Giants pass rush at bay, which brings us to…
Will Matt Ryan take the next step? Ryan is a fine young quarterback, but we can all agree the “Matty Ice” moniker was a tad premature; let’s at least wait until he wins a playoff game. Regardless of Turner’s output, Ryan, 0-2 in his postseason career, will determine whether Atlanta advances. He threw 23 touchdowns to only five picks in the Falcons’ 10 wins this year, as compared to six touchdowns and seven interceptions in their six losses. So yeah, sort of a big difference there. Just remember: when in doubt, look for Roddy White, who finished with an eye-popping 100 catches, and Julio Jones, who has six touchdown grabs in his last four games.
Is Eli elite? Truthfully, this is no longer a question. In seven full seasons at the helm, Manning has never finished worse than 8-8. He’s won at least 10 games on four occasions, and, oh yeah, he’s got a Super Bowl ring. He also set an NFL record with 15 fourth-quarter touchdown passes, including one at New England, where Tom Brady hadn’t lost since 2006. So I’d say Eli’s doing something right.
Bottom line: The Giants have home field advantage, they’re more battle-tested and they play their best when they have to.
Prediction: Giants 24, Falcons 14
Tony Meale is a freelance writer for MLB.com, cincinnati.com and ffjungle.com, among others. His fantasy football work has led to guest appearances on several radio outlets, including ESPN Radio and Sirius Radio. He has a Master’s in Journalism from Ohio University and has been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists for outstanding work. A Cincinnati native, he is currently writing a book on one of the great sports stories never told.
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