BY SAM HITCHCOCK
It’s mid-December and the New York Giants are steadying themselves for their annual late season push. The Atlanta Falcons were not being taken seriously with their 11-1 record before Week 14, which was before they got smoked by Cam Newton leading their division rival, the Carolina Panthers. The playoffs are coming, and both of these teams with be playing. Contenders, start your engines.
The Quarterbacks and Counteracting Agents:
The Giants’ two wins in their last five games came against the Green Bay Packers and, last Sunday, the New Orleans Saints.
Both of these opponents were the Super Bowl champions before the Giants’ won last year, so victories over them would appear impressive.
But the Saints and Packers possess the same glaring weakness that the Giants were able to exploit, which is a horrendous pass rush. The Packers are rated last in the NFL via ProFootball Focus, and the Saints are 29th. If Eli Manning is able to sit comfortably in the pocket, he will shred a pass defense, and that opens up the run game.
This Sunday, the Giants take on the Falcons, who are rated 11th in the NFL in pass rush, and depend heavily on defensive end John Abraham’s ability to disrupt and hurry the passer. Against the Panthers last week, Abraham’s mettlesome ability to shrink the pocket was negated, and his counterpart, Kroy Biermann, was even less effective. Similar to the Panthers’ Cam Newton, if Eli is left unfettered, he will pick apart Atlanta’s injury-plagued secondary.
Eli’s opposing analogue is Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan, and Ryan will need to stay upright and not get rattled by the Giants’ mixture of blitzes and redoubtable pass rush. Jason Pierre-Paul was able to knife through the Saints’ blockers last game and perturb Drew Brees for nine QB disruptions (PFF), and if JP-P is a wrecking ball to the Falcons’ offense then Atlanta has little chance.
On the other hand, if Ryan can release the ball quickly and keep the play alive, he has some of the most dangerous receivers in the game that will be going up against a questionable Giants’ secondary.
Last week, cornerbacks Corey Webster and Jayron Hosley were able to keep their heads above water against a very good New Orleans’ passing attack, and the Giants are hoping to contain the Falcons’ targets: Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez. To do so, they will need to see much better pass coverage from linebacker Michael Boley and a bounce back effort from oft-injured Prince Amukamara.
Both Jones and White have 15 or more 20-plus yard receptions, and the Falcons’ deep passing game stretches defenses vertically. The quick-strike downfield threat is one of Atlanta’s biggest assets. With the Giants’ focused on preventing the big, over-the-top throw from Ryan, the Falcons will have ample opportunity to methodically advance the ball via the intermediate pass through the middle of the field.
There is a lot of confusion and befuddlement over the Falcons’ propensity to keep giving forlorn running back Michael Turner opportunities to carry the ball when it seems clear his time has gone. Turner last Sunday was once again held to under 3.0 yards per rush, and squeezed out a sorry 14 yards on seven carries.
The much younger and more dynamic Jacquizz Rodgers has watched his snaps increase as the season has worn on, and Atlanta has begun to use him as a dual-threat checkdown receiver and explosive half back runner. Rodgers’ presence is making opponents respect the pass, which allows the Falcons to benefit from the run-action on play fakes.
For the Giants, last weekend was the epitome of the Darwin “survival of the fittest” cycle that is a running back’s career in the NFL. Ahmad Bradshaw was the veteran who saw limited time as he continued to be hampered by injuries, and first-round rookie David Wilson burst onto the scene displaying speed that jumps out of viewers’ televisions sets. If the Giants can establish a run game with the fresh-legged Wilson, it will allow Eli to spread the field with Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, Domenix Hixon, Rueben Randle, and Martellus Bennett.
The Falcons are better than the doubters claim, and worse than an NFC Super Bowl representative (and no, those two are not inclusive). The Giants play great on the road, and traditionally matchup well with Atlanta (New York has won the last seven times playing in Atlanta). The Falcons are much improved and not just a paper tiger -- this will go down to the wire. The Giants are simply a little more well-rounded.
Giants 38, Falcons 31
Bonus (Upset) Pick For the Kiddies: Bears 24, Packers 17