The Giants closed out this season’s final game at MetLife Stadium in style with a resounding 24-2 win over the Falcons in the wild-card round of the NFL Playoffs.
Following a two-year hiatus from the postseason — in which Big Blue choked away their chances in two separate second-half collapses to end the 2009 and 2010 seasons — it appeared as if the Giants used all of that pent-up frustration and took it out on the suddenly hapless Falcons.
New York dominated an Atlanta squad that finished the regular season No. 10 in offense, No. 12 on defense and first in special teams. Giants quarterback Eli Manning went 23-of-32 for 277 yards and three touchdowns and severely outplayed counterpart Matt Ryan who went 24-of-41 for 199 yards and no touchdowns. Manning, who had a history of coming up short in big home games, finally looked comfortable, as he led scoring drives of 85 yards (twice), 79 yards and 72 yards.
The first Big Blue scoring strike came when Manning found wideout Hakeem Nicks for a four-yard touchdown that capped a 13-play, 85-yard drive that spanned nearly eight minutes. The score was set up by Brandon Jacobs’s 34-yard run to the Falcons’ 15-yard line. Two plays later, Jacobs was stuffed on third-and-one to set up a fourth-and-one from the 5-yard line. He barely converted the 1-yard run to set up the first-and-goal opportunity, which Nicks cashed in for the 7-2 lead.
That was as close as Atlanta would get, as they never scored again and barely even threatened.
Manning said all praise goes to his supporting cast, particularly the stellar performance from his defense.
“The defense played great and hopefully they can continue that play next week,” said Manning, quickly praising his offensive teammates. “The offense moved the ball. Ahmad [Bradshaw] and Brandon ran well and Hakeem and the guys had a great game. They took away Victor [Cruz], but that’s why we have Hakeem and Mario Manningham.”
Nicks took full advantage of the extra attention paid to Cruz (two receptions for 28 yards), as he tallied six catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns. Manningham, who’s been battling a myriad of leg injuries all season, had a nice breakout game with four receptions for 68 yards and a touchdown.
The Falcons’ passing wasn’t nearly as successful as their receiving duo of Roddy White (five catches for 52 yards) and Julio Jones (seven for 64 yards) were non-existent and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez (four for 44 yards) will still be searching for his first-ever playoff win, as the receiving corps did nothing of note. The much-maligned and injury riddled Big Blue secondary showed its mettle by shutting down Atlanta’s passing game, forcing them into long-yardage situations and making them a one-dimensional outfit.
Head coach Tom Coughlin said he was pleased with how well his defense has played lately.
“If we can keep playing defense at this rate we can make some noise,” Coughlin said.
The Giants only allowed 247 total yards of offense and stymied the Falcons on numerous short-yardage situations, including two stops on fourth-and-one when the contest was still in doubt. On the opening play of the second quarter the Falcons couldn’t convert a fourth-and-one from the Giants’ 25-yard line, as Ryan was stuffed on a quarterback sneak.
New York once again stuffed a Ryan sneak when they stoned the Falcons on the Giants’ 21-yard line at the 4:16 mark of the third quarter. That was about as close as the Falcons would get to being a scoring threat, as they never challenged again, down 17-2.
The ability to slowly drain the spirit of the Falcons was a big key, according to Manning.
“The running game slowed down the pass rush and slowly chipped away,” said Manning. “I think it could be the best we’re playing all season. It’s a good mix of run and pass. Everyone knows their responsibilities. And if the running game can continue to get going it’ll open a lot of lanes for our passing game and for plays downfield.”
The unsung group was indeed the running game, which ended the regular season as the lowest-ranked attack in the NFL. But it was Jacobs (a game-high 92 yards) and Bradshaw (63 yards) who controlled the tempo. The running game wasn’t spectacular but they were certainly efficient enough to keep the Falcons’ defense off balance. Both runners also tallied runs longer than 30 yards — a 34-yarder for Jacobs and a 30-yarder for Bradshaw – and combined for 5.5 yards per carry.
“I felt good with having them back there behind me,” Manning said of his criticized duo, then adding a little hyperbole. “Those guys have been playing fabulous all year and I knew they’d play well.”
The Giants will need to continue this torrid pace next week, on the road, as they get a rematch with the Green Bay Packers.
Coughlin said despite the daunting task, he’s looking forward to the challenge.
“We weren’t sure where we were headed but I just heard that a second ago. We look forward to doing the best we can to prepare for the trip to Lambeau again,” said Coughlin, trying to appear as if he didn’t know prior to the game who’d they face if they won. “We use various themes [all season] and one is ‘You have to believe. Anything is possible if you believe.’ And ‘Keep the dream alive.’ And of course they did that today.”
Follow Giants beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.