By Paul Dottino
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Eli Manning was man enough to admit it.

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The Giants were not clicking on all cylinders when they returned from their off-weekend following last Thursday’s 45-14 road rout of the Washington Redskins. But they hit the switch during Wednesday’s practice — everybody on the 53-man roster participated and the players discovered their swagger as they prepared for Sunday’s home meeting with the Atlanta Falcons (2-2).

“I thought we had good energy, enthusiasm and good pace (on Wednesday), and that’s what you like to see from practice,” Manning said. “Guys were out there moving fast, hitting and doing well.”

And why not? The Giants (2-2) haven’t played at or above the .500 mark since they finished the 2012 season at 9-7.

Over that same period, the Falcons are 1-9 on the road, with their only win coming against Buffalo in Toronto on Dec. 1, 2013. Each of their nine losses came outdoors. They also were a minus-16 in turnover ratio in those 10 games.

Here are three key matchups to watch:

1) Giants LT Will Beatty vs. Falcons DE/OLB Osi Umenyiora: This will be the most compelling matchup of the day. Umenyiora, who practiced against Beatty before leaving for Atlanta after the 2012 season, has yet to register a sack this year. In fact, he has just six tackles and one hit on the quarterback while being relegated to a situational pass rusher. However, nobody has seen Umenyiora’s patented strip sack more that his former Giants teammates, and Manning admitted to being just as concerned about a fumble as he is about a sack. Beatty has played well coming back from a serious leg injury and has shared the responsibility for just one sack so far.

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2) Giants CBs Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Prince Amukamara vs. Falcons WRs Julio Jones and Roddy White: The Falcons want to hit big plays; they lead the NFL with 24 plays of at least 20 yards, and seven of those went for touchdowns. The Giants have given up 20 big plays, the second-most in the league.

Jones already has two 100-yard games. He’s second in the NFL with 447 receiving yards on 29 receptions (third) to go with three TDs. White (14-for-187, 2 TDs) has been a bit slowed by a sore hamstring, but he’s a gamer. Amukamara is tied for second in the NFL with seven pass breakups and DRC tied for sixth with six, although it’s more important that the corners limit the Falcons’ yards-after-catch total.

3) Giants DTs Cullen Jenkins and Jonathan Hankins vs. backup C Peter Konz: The Falcons desperately need to get their running game going in order to keep the Giants honest. Konz had a lot of difficulty as the starting center last season and was moved to guard before the end of the season. Now, he’s got to replace injured center Joe Hawley (knee) and deal with a defense that’s ninth in the league with nine sacks and 10th against the rush (101.2 avg.).

How well will he be able to keep defenders from penetrating after RB Steven Jackson, and can Konz efficiently call out the protection adjustments at the line against what’s likely to be an aggressive defensive front? Rhythm-passing QB Matt Ryan will require time to hit the big plays he’ll need to keep this game competitive.

PREDICTION: Giants 34, Falcons 17


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