Despite a drastic change in culture both offensively and defensively this season, the New York Giants are eerily reminiscent of their Super Bowl XLII champion selves; they're getting hot at the right time and flaunting a pass rush that gives opposing coordinators fits.
Primed to make another playoff run, Big Blue hosts a formidable foe in the Atlanta Falcons this Sunday. Matt Ryan, Michael Turner and company have lit up the scoreboard this season, en route to Atlanta's third playoff appearance in four years. With both teams performing with immense inconsistency in the 2011 campaign, Sunday's contest at MetLife Stadium should be a wild one.
Here are five key head-to-head clashes that each team must win in an effort to reach the next round of the NFL Playoffs.
While both Giants WR Hakeem Nicks and Falcons WR Roddy White have been models of consistency at their position over the past two seasons, both teams also possess a true "home-run hitter" wideout, a receiver that can turn a 5-yard completion into a miraculous touchdown or a game-changing conversion. For the G-Men, it's Victor Cruz, who emerged from the depths of the injured reserve and the practice squad to rank third in the NFL in receiving yards this year. In Giants victories, Cruz has averaged a whopping 20.6 yards per catch. Moreover, he has been particularly clutch of late, altering the dynamics of New York's final two regular season games with long catch-and-run touchdowns.
On the other sideline is first-year sensation Julio Jones. Seven of Jones' eight scores in 2011 have come in Atlanta victories, highlighting how his big-play potential is crucial to the team's success. With the up-and-down, injury-plagued rookie Prince Amukamara expected to assume the responsibility of covering the Falcons' phenom, Jones' vertical presence may help Atlanta establish a tempo on offense.
Both teams' secondaries are below-average at best: Atlanta ranks 20th in total pass defense, New York a dismal 29th. But if Atlanta's coverage unit can neutralize Cruz, or if the Giants can shut down Jones, the opposing offense will reluctantly have to change a portion of their game plan. Without big-play potential, no aerial attack is particularly intimidating.
The Giants pass rush has received much acclaim this year, and with DE Justin Tuck's recent shot at the Falcons' offensive line, all eyes will be on the duel between these two units. However, an equally, if not more important matchup has flown under the radar. Atlanta DE John Abraham has had yet another sensational season, tallying 9.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. Big Blue's star-power on the defensive line is undeniable, but Abraham has the potential to have an even bigger impact on the game's outcome.
The veteran lineman goes against David Diehl, who was recently forced to switch from the left guard position to the left tackle spot. Much of QB Eli Manning's success can be credited to New York's offensive line, which ranked seventh in the league in sacks allowed. However, if Abraham can take advantage of a re-adjusted Giants protection scheme, Manning could be in for a long, painful Sunday afternoon.
Once the most feared running back duo in all of football, Giants RBs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs lead a 2011 ground attack that ranked dead-last in the NFL in yards per game (89.2) and yards per carry (3.5). If the two 'backs combine for under triple-digit yardage this weekend, New York's chances for victory will be dangerously thin.
Opening up the rushing game will keep Falcons linebackers and safeties on their heels, a dream come true for Eli Manning and Big Blue's receivers. Manning is one of the most successful quarterbacks in the league when it comes to play action, and the Giants will thrive with a more balanced offense and a wide-open playbook. Expect offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride to give Bradshaw and Jacobs plenty of carries early on.
Michael Turner is the star of Atlanta's offense, but in 2011, the Giants have been far more successful in defending against the run than against the pass. Turner will surely get his touches, but the Falcons will have to rely on QB Matt Ryan and his receivers more than usual on Sunday. Ryan should subsequently look to future Hall-of-Fame TE Tony Gonzalez for production. Tight ends are known as a quarterback's safety net, but against the Giants, players at the TE position have performed exceptionally well.
Plagued by inconsistency all season, New York's safeties will have to step up and attempt to shut down Gonzalez, otherwise Atlanta will establish a rhythm through the air that will in turn aid Turner and the rushing game. Both SS Kenny Phillips and FS Antrel Rolle have been criticized for over-pursuit and occasional lapses in coverage, but Rolle's key interception against Dallas last Sunday may be a sign of improvement and stabilization. The Giants might enlist former Falcon LB Michael Boley to cover Gonzalez as well.
If the G-Men win this matchup, they'll put additional pressure on Ryan, who's a career 0-2 as a starter in the playoffs. However, if Gonzalez and the Falcons are successful, Atlanta's offense will take on a whole new dimension.
Twelve of Atlanta's 16 games this year were played indoors; the remaining four were played in either warm cities (Carolina, Tampa Bay) or in September, when low temperatures are not a concern. With a high of 44 degrees expected in East Rutherford on Sunday, the Falcons will face less than favorable conditions for the first time all season. How will the cold weather affect Matt Ryan? MetLife Stadium has a reputation for fostering swirling winds. Will the Falcons abandon the passing game and rely solely on RB Michael Turner?
If the Falcons can avoid becoming one-dimensional and overcome the cold, much of the Giants' home-field advantage is reduced. However, if Atlanta simply cannot adjust to playing in colder conditions outdoors, the Giants will have an inside track to the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs.