By Paul Dottino
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Neither Tom Coughlin nor his players are interested in talking about karma or the similarities to the Giants’ run through Super Bowl XLII – and with good reason. Nothing short of hard work, intensity and discipline will allow the team to advance through this postseason.
It starts with Sunday’s NFC Wild-Card game against the Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at MetLife Stadium.
Are the Giants good enough, when playing at their best, to make a run at the Super Bowl? Perhaps. The NFL has morphed into a pass-first league and Eli Manning has become an elite quarterback with an assortment of weapons who present a challenge. The Giants also have re-established a front four that’s capable of derailing another team’s offense at any time.
So, yes, the Giants have an opportunity to do something special. Las Vegas oddsmakers have put them at 12-1, which gives them a sporting chance.
But it’s going to take their ‘A’ game each week because the current version of the Giants is not complete. Their rushing game ranks last in the league, they only started to do an adequate job of stopping the run over the past month, and it’s unclear whether they’ve truly plugged the holes in their once-struggling secondary.
Yet they played a winning level of football in four of the past five games, beginning with a controversial loss to the NFL-best Green Bay Packers – which is why sentimental folks want to talk about how the 2007 loss to the New England Patriots launched them to a title that season.
As for this game, here are the Giants’ three key matchups to watch:
1. Giants’ front seven vs. Falcons RB Michael Turner. The Falcons offense begins with Turner – he starts the dominoes falling. They are a power running team which runs 55 percent of the time on first down and averages four yards on those carries. Once it gets to 2nd-and-6, Atlanta opens up its playbook and makes heavy use of the play-action pass – its favorite aerial weapon. Turner (1,340 rushing yards, 4.5 avg., 11 TDs) is a downfield runner with power and the ability to shed tacklers.
The Giants’ mission, while difficult, is simple: Do not allow Turner to rip them for early-down yardage and force the Falcons to more heavily rely on their passing game, which then allows the Giants’ front four to crank up its revitalized pass rush and control the game. Starting defensive tackles Chris Canty and Linval Joseph as well as middle linebacker Chase Blackburn must play strong.
2. Giants’ defensive ends vs. Falcons offensive line. Osi Umenyiora (ankle) came back from a month-long absence to register two sacks in the playoff-clincher against Dallas last weekend. His presence allows the Giants to go with three premier pass rushers – along with Pro Bowl pick Jason Pierre-Paul and a surging Justin Tuck – who can come at an offensive line from multiple angles.
Atlanta’s using their fourth offensive line combo of the season and has allowed just 26 sacks (fourth-lowest in NFL), but this is more a function of its system: remember, it’s using the run to get a defense digging in before opening up with the play-action. LT Will Svitek and RT Tyson Clabo are susceptible to getting beat by athletic speed rushers (see Giants above). RG Joe Hawley also is very limited in his ability and poses a target for an athletic defensive lineman.
Atlanta may try to counter by going to a no-huddle attack, which they’ve often been apt to do. But if the Giants’ speed rushers are on their game, it might not make any difference. QB Matt Ryan won’t be able to throw the ball up to WRs Roddy White or Julio Jones if he’s running for his life or on his back.
3. Giants WRs Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz vs. Falcons CBs Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes. Neither Nicks nor Cruz, the Giants’ two 1,000-yard receivers, have appeared in the postseason – how will they perform?
You’d have to like their chances based on last week when each caught a TD pass in a pseudo-playoff game. Even if the Giants try to establish a running game, they are likely to ask QB Eli Manning to take over the game at some point.
Robinson has slowed down and can be beaten deep. Grimes, who has outstanding cover skills, is two inches shorter than the 5-10 listed on the roster and he’s been battling back from knee surgery more than a month ago. Nicks and Cruz should be able to beat either corner whenever necessary.
PREDICTION: Giants 31, Falcons 20.
PREDICTION RECORD VS THE SPREAD: 8-8
What’s your prediction for Giants-Falcons? Make your case in the comments below…