After Eli Manning and the New York Giants have reeled off two straight impressive, must-win victories, one might assume that they will be hard to stop going into the playoffs, but the Atlanta Falcons have the weapons to send the Giants home disappointed on Sunday.
The Falcons started the season off slowly. After five games, the team had a 2-3 record including two razor-thin victories over the Philadelphia Eagles and the Seattle Seahawks as well a loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Since then, Atlanta has shown tremendous improvement. In their last 11 games, the Falcons won eight with only one blowout loss to the New Orleans Saints in Week 16 (another one of their losses was an overtime defeat by the Saints in Week 10).
Atlanta isn't a one-dimensional team, either. Both sides of the ball have continued to improve throughout the season
The defense, which is ranked 12th in total yardage this season, allowed 130 points in the team's first five games. In the final 11, the defense has allowed just 217 points, and that is after playing the powerful offenses of the Saints twice and the Detroit Lions once.
But the Giants have a powerful offense, too. In fact, the Giants have the eighth-ranked total offense in the NFL including the fifth-ranked passing offense, and the Falcons are much poorer against the pass than the run (20th-ranked pass defense).
Giving Eli Manning all day in the pocket could lead to disaster. Manning has had an amazing year. He threw for 4,933 yards and 29 touchdowns this season. Before Drew Brees broke Dan Marino's single-season passing yards record in Week 17 (Tom Brady broke it as well in Week 17), it was set at 5,084 yards.
As you can see, Manning has been fantastic and was just 155 yards away from breaking the record himself.
Therefore, Atlanta will need to release its best pass-rush threat, defensive end John Abraham, on Manning. But Abraham won't have an easy task. The Giants offensive line has only given up 28 sacks all season, so he will have to be backed up by Sean Weatherspoon at outside linebacker, who is having a solid year and is second on the team in sacks behind Abraham.
Cornerback Brent Grimes could give a boost to the Atlanta secondary after missing a number of games late in the season as well.
Grimes will see time against Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham and Victor Cruz opposite Dunta Robinson, and they will attempt to shut down the Giants' three-headed receiving corps. While Grimes and Robinson are only 5'10", Grimes' leaping ability and Robinson's physical play let them cover much larger wideouts.
Grimes and Robinson have broken up 22 passes and have three interceptions combined.
So, the Falcons will certainly need to produce on offense to have a chance. It is doubtful that they will be able to keep Manning and his passing attack completely out of the end zone.
And like their defense, the Falcons offense has gotten better as the season has progressed. In the Falcons' first five games, they scored 118 points and averaged 23.6 per game. In Atlanta's last 11 games, they scored 298 points and averaged 27.09 per game. The statistics from the final 11 include a blowout 45-16 loss to the Saints and a 45-24 blowout victory against the Buccaneers where Matt Ryan sat towards the end of each game (he sat the whole second half against the Buccaneers).
The team's offense won't be facing its biggest challenge of the season, either. The Giants defense is ranked 27th overall (29th in passing defense and 19th in rushing defense), and Atlanta has a well-balanced offensive attack ranked 10th overall (8th in both passing and rushing).
While much of the attention will be focused on Manning's precision passing, Ryan is having his second straight stellar year as a passer. He has thrown for over 4,000 yards and 29 touchdowns this season, and his receivers will be difficult for the Giants secondary to stop.
Roddy White is Ryan's favorite target and has had consecutive 100-reception, 1000-yard seasons.
Tony Gonzalez, the savvy veteran and one of the best to ever play the tight end position, is Mr. Consistent with his 80 receptions on the year.
And rookie wide receiver Julio Jones has really come on as of late. At 6'3", 220 pounds, Jones has freakish speed and jumping ability. He caught his first touchdown in Week 9 against the Indianapolis Colts (and second), and in the Falcons' last four games, Jones has gone off for 393 receiving yards and six touchdowns.
The Giants will have to deal with Atlanta's bowling ball in the backfield as well, Michael Turner, who has had an up-and-down year, but he had his best game of the season in Week 17 against the Buccaneers.
Turner ran for 172 yards and two scores including an 81-yard touchdown. Jacquizz Rodgers gives the
Falcons a speedy threat out of the backfield, and Jason Snelling's hands and blocking ability will be used as well.
All the running backs may be doing more blocking than they are used to. The Giants are tied for third in the NFL in sacks with 48, and the Falcons offensive line has had pass-protection issues this season.
Turner will need to get a body on Jason Pierre-Paul, but it will be hard to double-team Pierre-Paul on the line of scrimmage with Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora coming after Ryan, too.
The Falcons may need to throw a few extra screens to keep the Giants defensive line off balance.
The matchup will be close until the end, but if the Falcons can remain balanced on offense and not give up a ton of passing touchdowns, then they should come out of MetLife Stadium with a victory.