New York Giants vs. Atlanta Falcons: 10 Keys to the Game for Atlanta
Atlanta (11-2) has already clinched the NFC South title, but a win would help fend off the San Francisco 49ers' last-dash attempt to claim home-field advantage for the playoffs, as well as avenge a 27-2 playoff loss to the Giants in the Wild Card game last season.
The New York Giants (8-5) will be playing for their playoff lives, as a loss will send them into an even more clustered playoff race, as well as a divisional race for the NFC East. (The Cowboys and Redskins are both 7-6.)
New York might be the more urgent and confident team considering its last performance against the Falcons, coupled with an impressive 52-27 win over the New Orleans Saints from this past Sunday.
Atlanta is coming off a bad 30-20 loss in Charlotte, where the Carolina Panthers manhandled the Dirty Birds in the first half, holding them to just 13 plays in the first two quarters to give Atlanta that loss pundits had been waiting for all year.
If the Falcons can make a statement against the Giants, the warm feelings of being the NFC's top team should return in full form, especially considering teams like the Giants have gotten hot and taken the NFC playoffs in the past few seasons, proving that regular season games, come January, are moot.
A Falcons loss would give Atlanta its first losing streak since last season. In front of the home crowd in a playoff atmosphere, that could be very demoralizing for the team and the fanbase.
Here are 10 keys to what is undoubtedly Atlanta's biggest game of the 2012 season to this point.
Early Offensive Rhythm
Atlanta's defense didn't do its part last week in getting the Panthers off the field, but the offense didn't help out either.
The Falcons only ran 13 first-half plays against Carolina in their 30-20 loss, which makes Matt Ryan's passing total of 34 completions on 49 attempts even more astounding.
Matt Ryan and fellow receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones caught fire against Carolina's defense, but it was too little too late.
Inconsistency with the offense's rhythm has been an issue throughout this season. At home, two weeks ago against the Saints, Ryan didn't even throw for 200 yards in a win.
But, Atlanta did march right down the field against New Orleans, scoring and immediately giving the Saints a little bit more reason to put the pedal to the medal. That led to Drew Brees eventually forcing five interceptions against a defense that is pretty good at playing against pressing quarterbacks.
Anytime, when at home, you can make the opposing offense worry more about scoring than ball control, you give yourself a chance to really throw their system off-kilter.
Pressure on Eli
One of the reasons Atlanta's defense struggled so much last week was the presence of Cam Newton. Newton's size and athleticism becomes a major x-factor when he's actually hitting his receivers, which he was able to do against the Falcons.
Atlanta simply could not get pressure on Cam. But the Falcons won't be facing that giant, per se, in Eli Manning.
Eli is a quarterback that can be flustered. Cincinnati, which boasts arguably the best defensive line in football, proved that with a 31-13 win at home on Nov. 11. Manning left that game with a quarterback rating of 56.0, which included two interceptions.
The Falcons need to do their best to duplicate those numbers by getting intense pressure on Manning. John Abraham, who is having a Pro Bowl season with 10 sacks to this point, needs some help from Jonathan Babineaux, Kroy Biermann, and a revived Corey Peters.
Atlanta ranks just 19th in the NFL with 28 sacks. It's going to need an uncharacteristically good night from the pass rush to throw off Eli Manning, who has been a hit-or-miss quarterback in the past.
More Snaps for No. 32
It's simple. Yet it's not. But, it is.
The Falcons simply cannot run the ball. Michael Turner gets the blame. The once-dashing tailback, nicknamed "The Burner," was Atlanta's key offensive weapon.
Turner has now become the epitome of worn out, at least in Atlanta fans' eyes. He's rushed for just 687 yards this year on 3.7 yards per carry. While many argue his inability to hit the hole and lack of agility are obvious, he hasn't really gotten the help from his offensive line.
That's at least been the argument fans have made in support of Turner when the talk of getting Jacquizz Rodgers the ball more comes up at the cooler.
Turner is still a bruiser, but only when he can get to the second level. With a better offensive line in front of him in 2008, he proved that. But, an older and slower Turner is having trouble getting there. If Turner can't get to the second level, he's useless, and he can't get there himself. He's just not that type of runner.
Rodgers, however, has the agility and quickness to elude the first line of defense and get Atlanta more positive yards, even when the blocking isn't there. Rodgers just functions better with this lackluster offensive line.
Not only is he averaging better yards per carry at 4.1, but he's also got 43 receptions this season.
He's much more versatile, which means he can come in on passing and rushing downs and give Matt Ryan the ability to run and pass out of the same formations. Not only is Rodgers statistically more productive, but his presence alone helps the entire offense.
David Wilson's Grip
The Giants will probably be without starting tailback Ahmad Bradshaw, who suffered a sprained knee against New Orleans.
Even if Bradshaw plays, the Giants might be better off giving more snaps to rookie running back and special teamer David Wilson, who had a nice showing against the Saints.
Wilson is definitely talented enough to come in and keep a normal beat for the Giants, but he does have a history of having trouble handling the rock.
Wilson had a fumble problem during his Virginia Tech days, and it reared its ugly head earlier this year when he lost the ball on the second carry of his career.
In fact, he was so upset with losing the ball that he burst into tears on the sideline. There's no doubt he takes pride in his handling, but will he be able to keep his mind off of it if he's forced into a starting role on Sunday?
Atlanta loves to create turnovers. Turnovers are the reason the Falcons have a scary defense week in and week out despite not being statistically outstanding in terms of yards given up. Don't be surprised if Falcons defenders knock the ball out of Wilson's hands at some point during the contest.
Health on Defense
The Falcons sorely missed William Moore last week.
Moore, who's having a Pro Bowl-type season, went from a two-interception game against New Orleans to not playing against the Panthers due to a hamstring injury.
Moore is listed as questionable for the game. His ability to fire into the hole like a linebacker, coupled with some serious ball-hawking skills, makes him arguably Atlanta's most feared defender.
There's no doubt the Falcons lost a little bit of pop on defense with Chris Hope in this past week.
Also, Atlanta had Robert McClain and Chris Owens playing a lot in space because of Asante Samuel's nagging shoulder injury.
Samuel is also listed as questionable for Sunday's game against the Giants.
The Falcons need to be at full force to handle the Giants receivers.
With Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, the New York Giants have a really dangerous defensive line that can make running the football a chore.
Considering Atlanta will already be predisposed with a horrid running game, the Falcons will want to get creative if they want to get yards on the ground against the Giants.
Atlanta must be able to run draw plays to give Turner room to run. Draws tend to pull defensive ends out of the way, which will help give Turner room to get into the second level. Rodgers should benefit from the draw as well.
Continuing what was said on the last key, Atlanta won't just be able to line up in the I-formation and take it to the Giants.
The no-huddle offense is Matt Ryan's bread and butter and definitely will be the formula for keeping the Giants defensive front from teeing off.
Atlanta likes to run the no-huddle through a three receiver, one back, one tight end set, which is a staple that offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter inherited from the Falcons former OC, Mike Mularkey.
This is a formation that Ryan not only sees defenses best with, but it's also Atlanta's best set for run plays.
If Koetter gives the controls to Ryan early, he should prove effective and at his best. The worst thing the Falcons can do is start the game by running in packages that lean towards run or pass, which is a problem the Falcons have had in the past.
Against the Giants defensive front, that could become a huge problem.
White Must Back Up His Words
Atlanta's Roddy White isn't the diva receiver that the likes of Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson were back in the day, but that's not to say he doesn't come out and say something pretty dumb every once in a while.
White probably made a bit of a mistake this week by saying he thinks the Falcons have better receivers than the Giants. White might be right, in terms of sheer ability and potential.
Anytime you can take a Pro Bowl guy like White and line up an athletic freak like Julio Jones next to him, you've got something pretty special. They've come through, catching 77 and 63 passes, respectively, for a total of 12 touchdowns this year.
But, Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz are no pushovers in a league where functional receivers come at a dime-a-dozen.
Plus, not only is White listed on this week's injury report, albeit he's probable, but Harry Douglas may not play, which cuts into Atlanta's depth at receiver.
White will be under a spotlight, as will Julio, to back up the talk (even though Julio has probably never said anything of not since he's arrived in Atlanta).
Dome Field Advantage
The Atlanta Falcons have a home-field advantage that is unmatched despite the fact that a new stadium appears to be a lock to go up in 2017.
Atlanta is 32-6 in the Georgia Dome since Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff arrived in 2008, and there's no doubt that the Falcons fans will be as loud as they've been all season on Sunday.
Remember, Atlanta fans have a personal beef with New York and its possible perception of the Falcons organization thanks to an uninformed article written by ESPN New York writer Rob Parker before last year's playoff game that said the fans in Atlanta are pathetic.
Thanks to that article, which caused a social media uproar, Falcons fans have some business to tend to and the Giants could be taking the brunt of the barrage.
The Falcons should be able to feed off some serious energy within the Georgia Dome walls and make life just as hectic for Eli Manning and company as it was for the Saints, who can tell you playing against this Atlanta crowd isn't a walk through Central Park.
The Space Between the Ears
The Falcons need to bounce back after last week's debacle in Charlotte.
Atlanta seemed to be en route to a big victory after Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy said the Panthers (3-9) were better than the Falcons.
One would have expected, especially considering the Panthers had the emotionally flustered Cam Newton at quarterback, that the business-like Falcons would have gone in and quieted Carolina.
That didn't happen, and now Atlanta has to show up for a huge game that could, if it goes the wrong way, completely erase the mojo it built by starting the season 11-1.
Atlanta can't be soul searching in this game. If this game gets away, even more scrutiny will come to this team. Wins against Detroit and Tampa Bay in the final weeks may not be enough to give Atlanta that extra fire it has missed in the playoffs the past three times it has been there.
A win over the Giants could give Atlanta the boost. This game could make a difference in how emotionally set the Falcons are when the playoffs roll around.