Jan 122012
 
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New York Giants 24 (10-7) – Atlanta Falcons 2 (10-7)

by rnargi for BigBlueInteractive.com

Game Summary

The New York Giants dominated the Atlanta Falcons in their Wild Card match-up at MetLife (Giants) Stadium on Sunday.  In doing so, New York won their first home playoff game since they shut out the Minnesota Vikings 41-0 in the NFC Championship game in January 2001.

On Sunday, the Giants came out sluggish on offense early but got rolling in the second quarter in a game that was reminiscent of their Wild Card game in Tampa on their run to the 2007 NFL Championship.  The Giants now have earned the chance to go to Lambeau Field next week and take on the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers for the right to advance to their 5th NFC Championship Game.

The Giants defense did an outstanding job of keeping the game close early until the offense found their rhythm.  In the beginning, the Giants offensive line was challenged and was being soundly beaten by the Atlanta front four.  Fortunately, New York’s defense matched the intensity of the Falcons defense and while the Giants eventually solved the Atlanta defense, Atlanta never really got anything going offensively and when they stumbled on critical 3rd and 4th down plays, the rout was on.

Going into the game, the conventional wisdom was that the Giants had to stop the strong Atlanta running game and keep the momentum they’d built running the ball the past several weeks.  New York accomplished both in convincing fashion.  New York held RB Michael Turner, the NFL’s third leading rusher in the league who boasted a robust 4.5 ypc average to a paltry 41 yards on 15 carries for a 2.7 ypc average.  The longest run of the day for Atlanta came from WR Julio Jones on an end around for 13 yards.  As for the Giants, Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw led the Giants to a banner day on the ground.  All told, the team rushed for 172 yards and a 5.5 ypc average.  Everything fell in to place from there as the Giants were able to pass effectively when Atlanta loaded up the box to stop the run and were able to tee off on the Atlanta passing game when it became apparent that they had to pass to advance the ball.  Additionally, New York was able to dominate the time of possession, 34:34 to 25:26.  When you have the ball for 9+ minutes more than the opposition, it usually leads to a win.

On the day, New York gained nearly 200 yards more than Atlanta, converted 53% of their 3rd downs and their only 4th down attempt while holding the Falcons to just 4 of 14 3rd down conversions (29%) and 0 for 3 on 4th down.  Neither team turned the ball over via fumble or interception but the Giants did suffer a safety which also includes punting the ball and the Falcons turned the ball over on downs three times.

As mentioned, this game started out a lot like the Tampa Wild Card game in the 2007 season.  Though the Giants only spotted Atlanta a 2 point lead instead of 14, the 1st quarter was a mess for the Giants offense.  Through their first 4 drives, New York ran just 12 plays, gained a gross total of just 34 yards and a net of just 6, only had 1 first down, and gave up a safety.

New York’s defense had just stopped Atlanta after an impressive 66 yard drive on a 3rd and 2 run by FB Jason Snelling and then a 4th and 1 QB sneak by QB Matt Ryan at the Giants 24.  The offense came out after the stop and had a 13 yard gain on a short pass to Bradshaw negated by a Chris Snee hold.  On 1st and 20, Atlanta caught Bradshaw in the backfield for a two yard loss and then Manning lost 12 yards and drew the safety when he didn’t get the ball to the line of scrimmage and was called for intentional grounding in the end zone.  At that particular point, things were not looking good for New York.   Following the safety however, the Giants’ offensive fortunes turned.

Offense

If a person who hadn’t watched the game were to read about it in the paper or just see the highlights on television, they’d come away thinking the offense dominated the game.  That is just not true.  New York, continuing a tendency that they broke for one game last week, started off woefully and needed a strong second half to put away the Falcons.  New York had 6 first half possessions and were able to move the ball just once, an 85 yard drive that put the Giants in the lead for good late in the 2nd quarter.  Other than that New York suffered three 3 and outs, a 2 play drive that ended in a safety and a 4 play drive that ended in a punt.  New York gained just six 1st downs in the half, with five of them coming on the touchdown drive.

The Giants had an opportunity to possibly score more points just before the half but a bizarre spot on a 2nd and 10 play with about a minute and a half left cost the Giants.  On the play, it appeared that WR Hakeem Nicks made a catch for a clear first down, and even though the ball was spotted at least a yard further back from where Nicks gained forward progress, it still appeared by the TV angle that it was a first down.  For an unknown reason QB Eli Manning didn’t ask for a measurement nor did he call one of two timeouts remaining in order to reset the offense for the very short 3rd and inches.  More puzzling is why the replay booth didn’t intervene by buzzing down to the field and discussing the spot.  At any rate, with the clock running, Manning ran the 3rd down play and threw an incomplete intermediate pass and the Giants had to punt.

The Giants offense awoke fully in the 2nd half and dominated the Falcons, scoring on their first 3 possessions and missing a very makeable field goal on their 4th.  Their final possession was the victory formation.

Quarterback

Eli Manning had a slow start to the game as he was harassed, hurried, knocked down and sacked early and often.  In the 1st half, Eli threw for just 60 yards but did have the go ahead touchdown on a drive in which he made two excellent plays to spark the Giants.  The first was the catalyst the offense needed, a 3rd and 2 scramble for 14 yards (a season long for Eli).  The play seemed to jump start the Giants, particularly the running backs who ended up accounting for 55 rushing yards on the drive.  A few plays later on 1st and 10, Eli avoided at least a 5 or 6 yard sack as he shoveled a pass to Bradshaw that ended up in a 1 yard loss.  It may not have seemed significant to some, but the Giants probably would not have run Jacobs on 2nd and 16 on the next play.  The 2nd and 11 run by Jacobs went for 34 yards and the Giants were on their way.

With approximately 12 minutes to go in the 3rd quarter, Manning still had just 60 yards passing.  Manning finished on fire and on the day ended up completing 23 of 32 passes for 277 yards and 3 touchdowns and once again no interceptions.  Manning also had several nice throws that were dropped.  Manning’s passer rating was a robust 129.3 and his Total QBR was 78.5, which ranked 4th among the eight Wild Card weekend QBs.

Manning’s three touchdowns were a playoff career high, and the 3rd was a beautiful 27 seam pass to WR Mario Manningham in the end zone that was his third read.

Running Backs

New York ran for an incredible 172 yards (5.5 ypc average) on Sunday.  The backs combined for 159 of them.  This resurgence allowed the Giants to control the clock and the flow of the game, causing Atlanta to become largely one dimensional in the second half.  Particularly impressive was the way the Giants closed out the 4th quarter with 53 rushing yards en route to an astounding 12:31 to 2:29 time of possession advantage.  Considering that the Giants rushed for only 6 yards in the 1st quarter, the in game turn around was impressive.

Brandon Jacobs got the party started with a 34 yard run on the 2nd and 11 play discussed above.  On that play, the Giants got great blocks from their guards, Chris Snee and Kevin Boothe who pulled and opened up a huge hole for Jacobs.  Downfield WR Hakeem Nicks also delivered a key block.  Not to be outdone, Ahmad Bradshaw took the very next handoff for 9 yards.  After the Giants backs were each held for little gain on 2nd and 3rd down, New York decided to go for it on 4th and inches from their own 6 yard line.

The Giants set the tone for the rest of the game on this play.  New York lined up in a double TE set with FB Henry Hynoski and Jacobs in the I with Manning under center and Hakeem Nicks to Eli’s right outside the numbers.  Atlanta countered with four down linemen and the safety and a linebacker crowding the line over top of Bear Pascoe to Manning’s left.  The other outside linebacker was crowding the line over Jake Ballard to Manning’s right.  Atlanta also brought a safety into the box between the LDE and LDT and the MIKE linebacker in the gap between the DTs.  The cornerback on Nicks had over the top help with the other safety in the end zone.  The Giants did not motion anyone.  Just before the snap, the Falcons linebacker between LDE and LDT crowded the line to fill the gap.

At the snap, Ballard crashed down inside on the LDE while RT Kareem McKenzie crashed down inside on the linebacker who filled the gap.  The interior of the line got a very good push and neutralized everyone from the right guard out, which effectively slowed down the MIKE linebacker, which was crucial to the play.  Hynoski obliterated the outside linebacker and also got a piece of the MIKE, which allowed Jacobs to slam into him while he was off balance, spin, and easily pick up the first down.  By the time the deep safety got into the play, Jacobs had already picked it up.

On the day, Jacobs rushed for 92 yards on 14 carries, a 6.6 ypc average.  Jacobs also caught both passes thrown his way for 8 yards.

Bradshaw also had a solid ground day, rushing for 63 yards on 14 carries for a 4.5 ypc average.  Bradshaw was also instrumental in the passing game as Eli checked to him 5 times, all caught, for 22 yards.  Two of those passes converted 3rd downs.

D.J. Ware only got 1 carry for 4 yards and left the game with a concussion.

Hynoski had a solid game blocking but wasn’t targeted in the passing game this week.  Speaking of blocking, the Giants running backs didn’t start very well with regards to picking up blitzes and chipping, but it was apparent later in the game that they made an effort to give help on the edges to the tackles who were having issues early with the Atlanta defensive ends.

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

First and foremost, how about the downfield blocking from Manningham, Nicks and Cruz?  All three were extremely active, along with TE Travis Beckum, blocking in the running game.  The Giants had only four runs in excess of 20 yards all season, yet had two of 30 or more in this game and also had two others for 14 and 15 yards, not including Eli’s 14 yard scramble.  A team must have downfield blocking in order to break these kinds of runs and on Sunday they had it in spades.

Atlanta spent a lot of energy trying to contain Victor Cruz and did a fine job of taking him out of the game.  Cruz only caught 2 of 5 balls thrown his way for 28 yards.  One was a huge play however as Cruz worked back across the field to give Manning a target as he scrambled out of the pocket on a 3rd and 12 play that resulted in 22 yards and a 1st down.  That drive ended with a Lawrence Tynes field goal that put the Giants up by 8 points.

The main beneficiary of the attention paid to Cruz was Mario Manningham who caught 4 passes for 68 yards.  Manningham did a fantastic job of corralling a 27 yard touchdown pass in which he was running out of room in the end zone between 2 defenders.  His most important catch may have been a 3rd and 6 play on the next Giant possession following his touchdown where he managed to grab a high fastball from Manning while dragging his toes just in bounds for 13 yards and a 1st down to keep the drive alive and the clock moving.

Hakeem Nicks caught 6 of 9 balls thrown his way on Sunday including 2 touchdowns.  The first was a simple crossing pattern in the end zone off play action for the 4 yard touchdown.  The ball was thrown slightly behind Nicks but he was able to go up and over the defender to reach back and make what looked like a routine catch that was anything but.  Later, Nicks broke the game open taking another short pass off a crossing pattern (again on 3rd down, this time a 3rd and 3) and turning it up field, making a simple move on the safety and then running by four other Atlanta defenders for a 72 yard touchdown.  Nicks could have had another touchdown but was mauled by an Atlanta defender and didn’t get a call despite the field judge being right there to witness the foul.

TE Jake Ballard, coming off an injured knee that caused him to miss games against the Jets and Cowboys, was targeted just 3 times catching 2 balls for 13 yards.  Ballard did drop a would be touchdown pass in the back of the end zone on a pass that may have been just a bit high and behind him.  Still, it wouldn’t have been the most difficult catch that Ballard made this season.  Having Ballard back opened the field for the other receivers, even if he wasn’t targeted much downfield.  Travis Beckum blocked well downfield in the running game and he also caught a pass for 7 yards and a 1st down on a 2nd and 6 play that helped keep alive the drive that ended in Manningham’s touchdown.

Offensive Line

New York’s offensive line struggled early, unable to slow down DEs Ray Edwards and John Abraham.  Atlanta also brought safety blitzes and they were not picked up by the TEs and RBs early.  To compound things, the line wasn’t effective at all early in the run game, especially in the interior where C David Baas and G Chris Snee seemed to have problems with the DTs.  To illustrate the troubles, New York committed 4 holding penalties: one on Diehl on a screen pass that was declined, two on Snee though one was declined, and one on Baas.  The line also allowed another pressure to reserve safety James Sanders that led to the Manning intentional grounding for a safety.

After that safety however, something changed.  New York did give extra help outside chipping on the ends but it appeared that the line had simply had enough and began to dominate the line of scrimmage.  The pulling guards began to open serious holes and David Baas started mauling from the center position.  On the day, Manning was sacked just once (on the Giants’ second drive) and was hit 5 times.  Most of those hits came early in the game.

Defense

It has been a long time coming, but New York’s defense is coming on.  Much of it has to do with having a healthy and effective defensive line that has been getting a tremendous pass rush, but the fact is the back seven has also tightened up considerably.  Adding to the mix is the solid play that New York is getting out of MIKE linebacker Chase Blackburn.  The Giants have faced three potent rushing attacks and overall solid if not great offenses over the past three weeks.  For the most part, the Giants have shut them down, giving up just 28 total points over that period.

On Sunday, the Giants defense pitched a shutout with an impressive performance, particularly on 3rd and 4th down.  It’s no secret: Atlanta has some serious weapons in WRs Roddy White and Julio Jones, RB Michael Turner and TE Tony Gonzalez.  New York did not allow Atlanta into the green zone until the very last drive of the game in garbage time but were still able to preserve the shutout.  What the defense did to shut this group down was tremendous.

Stifling the run was a huge key to this game, but what may have been lost or gone unnoticed by some was the tremendous job that much maligned S Deon Grant did in the passing game.  On several occasions, Grant crashed down from his safety spot and just crushed Jones coming off the line either disrupting or eliminating his route when the Giants were in man to man coverage.

Frankly, the defense turned in their best performance of the year on Sunday against a very potent offense.  They held Atlanta to 247 net yards with only 64 coming on the ground, forced 5 possessions to go 3 and out, allowed only 4 third down conversions (1 in the 2nd half), stuffed 2 fourth down and 1 attempts, and recorded a sack on another.

Front 7

The Giants front 7 didn’t have the dominant sack total that they had in the last 2 games, registering just 2, but they hit QB Matt Ryan 7 times and had him on the run for much of the game.  The real damage from the front 4 came against the run, especially from Jason Pierre-Paul who had 6 tackles (8 total) in the first half alone.  The defensive tackles – Chris Canty, Rocky Bernard and Linval Joseph – combined for 7 tackles, 3 QB hits and a sack while getting great push in the middle, specifically on both 4th and 1 QB sneaks.  Canty and Bernard also had balls tipped at the line.

DE Justin Tuck didn’t get a sack but he did get 2 QB hits and was in on 4 tackles.  His running mate Osi Umenyiora also had 2 QB hits and the game ending sack on Ryan.

The linebacker play was exceptional on Sunday.  MIKE linebacker Chase Blackburn seems to have found his sea legs and looked great.  He had a critical stop when he filled a gap and stuffed Turner for a yard loss on a 3rd and 1 play.  Blackburn tied for the team lead as he was in on 9 tackles Sunday.  Rookie Jacquian Williams had another solid performance, coming up with 4 tackles and a pass defensed.  Not to be outdone, a fully healthy Michael Boley was flying around and was in on 5 tackles.

The Giants mixed up their front 7 often, bringing in the 4 aces package on several occasions and moving JPP and Tuck inside on several occasions.  While there has been a lot of talk about the 3 man rush not working, it nearly led to an interception off a tipped ball on the play where Ross and JPP were injured.

Secondary

For the third week in a row, New York’s secondary played a phenomenal game.  As mentioned, Atlanta has plenty of weapons at the receiver/tight end positions and they were shut down for much of the game.  The longest Atlanta pass play on the day was just 21 yards.  Corey Webster was outstanding, allowing just 5 catches on 12 passes thrown to Roddy White.  Aaron Ross had Julio Jones early and was doing a good job of holding him down before he got injured.  Afterwards, Jones became the responsibility of Prince Amukamara and he also did a good job.

The Giants jammed the inside receivers (usually Jones and Gonzales) a good amount of the time.  To illustrate the point, on the first play following Ross’ injury, a 3rd and 11 play with the Giants leading just 7-2, Amukamara looked confused as Atlanta was lining up.  Atlanta was in a bunch formation in a double TE set with Julio Jones lined up just outside the right hash (ball spotted on the left hash).  New York seemed to have it locked down before the snap except for Prince, who was looking towards safety Deon Grant as Atlanta got ready to snap the ball.  Prince was literally turned 90 degrees towards the middle of the field at the snap.  Luckily, Grant either realized Prince was out of position or it was a called play (there is no way to be sure) and fired up field just before the ball was snapped.  At the snap, Prince was still looking completely back at Grant, who was running and pointing at Jones.  Jones ran straight out and past Prince but Grant closed and clobbered him about three yards off the line, taking him completely out of the play.  Ryan went the other way to White who had the play broken up by Webster.  It went unnoticed by the announcers, but had Grant not realized that Prince was in trouble, Jones would have been down the seam and had an outside flag pattern all to himself.

Grant was only in on 3 tackles and had a pass defensed, but he was solid in coverage thanks to his jams on the receivers.

S Antrel Rolle was also in on 9 tackles, mostly in run support.  S Kenny Phillips was once again light on the stat sheet but once again the opponent was unable to throw deep on him.

Special Teams

There has been some hand wringing in The Corner Forum regarding the recent play of K Lawrence Tynes after missing another relatively routine field goal on Sunday.  His kickoffs were excellent on the day with 4 of 5 going into the end zone with 2 touchbacks.  So far his recent misses haven’t hurt the team.  But now he’s got to try to kick in frigid Lambeau and while he’s had success there, he’s also had failure.

The Giants kickoff coverage teams did a great job of holding KR Eric Weems in check, allowing a long of just 27 yards.  The kickoff return team didn’t have much to do as Atlanta kicked off just once to open the game and Jernigan returned it for 27 yards.

P Steve Weatherford had an outstanding day, punting 4 times for a 45.8 yard average.  His first three went out of bounds and the fourth went for a touchback.  Weems never had a chance for a return.

Will Blackmon fielded 5 punts but couldn’t do anything with them, returning a long of just 12 yards.

It sure seems that it’s just a matter of time before the Giants get to a punt and block it.  On Sunday both Justin Tuck and Antrel Rolle just missed, and frankly Rolle was held on the play where it looked like he was about to get there.

Coaching

The Giants did an outstanding job of keeping the team focused early when the offense couldn’t get anything going.  Tom Coughlin showed excellent time management skills in getting Manning the ball back by calling a time out just before the 2 minute warning.  The head scratcher is why he didn’t call a time out after the horrid 2nd down spot on that drive.  Coughlin could not have challenged the play because it was inside two minutes, but he could at least have gotten a measurement and set up a higher percentage play before that 3rd down attempt.

DC Perry Fewell pressed all the right buttons on Sunday.  The game plan to stop the run and get after Ryan worked to perfection.

Final Thoughts

This game was a beatdown, at home, in front of a raucous crowd.   It’s something that we as Giants fans have been waiting for nearly the entire year and it was fun to watch.  New York showed great emotion and fire, and blew open a close game with completely dominant 3rd and 4th quarters.

The Giants have won three straight against three quality opponents and have won four of their last five overall.  So much for the much ballyhooed ‘second half swoon.’  They’re relatively healthy and the defense is beginning to gel.  They will have several key players back against the Packers that they did not have the last time these teams met.  New York has already proven they can go toe to toe with Green Bay and they certainly have no problem going on the road to Lambeau or anywhere else for that matter.  The game on Sunday will come down to containing Rodgers and limiting mistakes.  The Giants have more than a puncher’s chance to unseat the defending Super Bowl champions and advance to their 5th NFC Championship game.

Onward and upward!

(Box Score – Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants, January 8, 2012)
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