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Approach to the Game – New York Giants at Atlanta Falcons, December 16, 2012: Despite the important victory against the New Orleans Saints, the Giants still find themselves in a precarious position.  Although they are one game ahead of the Redskins and Cowboys with three games to play, the Giants have the far tougher schedule and the poorer division record.  The next two games are against two of the NFL’s better teams.

What’s particularly worrisome is not just the caliber of the upcoming competition but the Giants’ extreme inconsistency.  They have easily beaten three of the NFL’s most dangerous teams in the 49ers, Packers, and Saints, but have played too many games this year where all three facets of the team have disappointed.  The win against the Packers was supposed to be the turning point, but in the most important game of the season, the Giants laid an egg the following week in Washington.  The Giants once again looked impressive against the Saints last weekend.  Now what version of the Giants will we see against the Falcons?  Will the roller coaster continue?  If it does, the Giants won’t make the playoffs and that would be an incredible shame given their potential to beat even the best teams in the NFL.

At 11-2, Atlanta is tied with the Texans with the best record in football and they are currently the #1 seed in the NFC.  The Falcons are probably not as good as their record, but they are still a very good football team and a team coming off of an embarrassing loss to the Panthers.  They also likely have revenge on their minds for the playoff loss to the Giants last January.  As indicated by their home record (6-0), the Falcons are a much tougher opponent at home.   Atlanta hasn’t played a lot of tough teams, but they have beaten teams that have given the Giants trouble this year – Atlanta is 3-0 against the NFC East.  Atlanta does not tend to beat themselves – they are the least penalized team in the NFL.

Giants on Offense: Atlanta is not overly imposing on defense.  They rank 20th in terms of yards allowed, but they are 5th in points allowed (19.9 points per game).  So they tend to bend, but not break.  That could be problematic for a Giants’ offense that has been up-and-down (mostly down) in the red zone this season.

Atlanta’s 4-3 defense is more based on speed/quickness than size.  The Falcons are 16th against the pass and 23rd against the run.  Those numbers suggest that the Giants should be able to remain balanced against the Falcons.  With HB Ahmad Bradshaw (sprained knee) ailing and possibly unavailable, the bulk of the running game may fall to David Wilson, Kregg Lumpkin, and Ryan Torain.  Wilson will see more touches in this game than he has all season.  He’s not a big guy so it will be interesting to see if he can take physical pounding.

The Falcons have only one big sack threat and that is 34-year old DE John Abraham (10 sacks), who also gave the Giants some problems in the playoff game.  Abraham versus the Giants’ tackles is something to watch.  Atlanta will probably try to match him up on David Diehl.  DT Jonathan Babineaux, who has a rib injury, can be disruptive inside as well.

The crowd will likely be very loud in the Georgia Dome.  The Giants have had too many offensive penalties the last two games and everyone on the offensive side will need to remain focused despite the noise.  Of course a quick strike or two would help settle down the fans.

The Falcons’ secondary is improved.  The Falcons acquired CB Asante Samuel in the offseason.  The Giants are very familiar with Asante.  Atlanta is also getting excellent play out of their two safeties – SS William Moore and FS Thomas DeCoud.  They have nine interceptions between the two of them and Moore, who has a hamstring issue, is second on the team in tackles.  The other starting corner is Dunta Robinson.

If the Giants’ offensive line can block the Atlanta front, the Giants should be able to do some damage against the Falcons both running the football and passing it.  Much focus has been on QB Matt Ryan’s play at home in the dome, but Eli Manning tends to play very well in domes as well.  Despite the fact that Eli threw four touchdown passes last weekend, he made some really poor decisions as well.  That needs to stop in this game.  In particular, Eli must shine against a red zone defense that has been very, very stingy in giving up points.

Giants on Defense: Critics of the Giants’ defense will point to their 25th ranking in terms of yards allowed (27th against the pass, 22nd against the run).  Proponents will point to their scoring defense – 8th in the NFL, allowing 20.8 points per game.   Those numbers also suggest a bend-but-don’t-break approach.  And the Giants have forced 34 turnovers this year (20 interceptions and 14 fumble recoveries).

The problem is that the Giants are giving up far too many big plays.  This year, the Giants’ defense has given up 58 plays of 20 yards or more.  So the defense is clearly breaking at times.  And the big worry is this – what if the turnovers stop?  Clearly the Giants need to tighten things up both against the run and the pass.  You can’t always count on turnovers.

Atlanta is 8th in the NFL in offensive yards and points (25.9).  They are very good on third down and very good in the red zone.  The Falcons are much better throwing the football (4th) than running (28th).  Indeed, it is tempting for the Giants to play mostly a nickel-type defense against the Falcons and dare Atlanta to beat the Giants with the ground game.  HB Michael Turner, who the Giants completely controlled in the playoff game, has struggled this year, averaging only 3.7 yards per carry.  Indeed, the bigger threat is probably back-up Jacquizz Rodgers who is averaging 4.1 yards per carry and who has become a security blanket for QB Matt Ryan out of the backfield (43 catches).

If Atlanta is able to do consistent damage on the ground against the Giants on Sunday, that doesn’t bode well at all.  The Falcons are not a good running team and the Giants must keep it that way.  But the Giants need their defensive tackles to play far better this weekend than they did against the Saints last Sunday.  New Orleans gouged the middle of the Giants’ defense and the Falcons surely noticed that.

Where the Falcons have done most of their damage is in the passing game.  Ryan is having an excellent year (24 touchdowns, almost 4,000 yards passing, 94.8 QBR).  His favorite targets are the ageless TE Tony Gonzalez (81 catches for 831 yards and 7 touchdowns), mouthy WR Roddy White (77 catches for 1,140 yards and 5 touchdowns), and dynamic WR Julio Jones (63 catches for 997 yards and 7 touchdowns).   As mentioned, Ryan will also throw to Rodgers out of the backfield.  He will also do so with FB Jason Snelling, who runs like a bull after the catch.  WR Harry Douglas is the third receiver.

White has been bothered by a knee injury and it remains to be seen how effective he can be.  The real keys are Gonzalez and Jones.  Gonzalez is a major reason why the Falcons are so good on third down and inside the red zone.  Jones is one of the most dangerous wide receivers in the NFL.  The big concern is the status of CB Prince Amukamara (hamstring).  If he can’t play, a Giants’ secondary that has been very vulnerable to the deep pass becomes even weaker.   The Giants may be forced to start CB Jayron Hosley and that’s asking a lot against this group.  In addition, Corey Webster’s up-and-down season continues.  Jones and White can embarrass you on any given play.  The Giants need the version of Webster that showed up in the playoff game against these same Falcons.

Will Kenny Phillips be able to play?  Coughlin said he had a setback so it sounds unlikely.  The Giants certainly could use the three safety look against Gonzalez.  Will Hill – who has been impressive – could be a key contributor.   Jacquian Williams could also loom large in coverage as could Keith Rivers who has been getting more and more playing time.  The Giants really need to watch for Rodgers and Snelling coming out of the backfield.  The Falcons could use quick passes to counter the Giants’ pass rush.

Despite only getting one sack last week, there were some signs of life from Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora on the pass rush last week.  This would be a great time for the pass rush to start to come alive.  Atlanta has only allowed 24 sacks this year however (tied for 7th best in the NFL).

Giants on Special Teams: Head Coach Tom Coughlin is impressed with Atlanta’s special teams.  David Wilson and his blockers will have their work cut out for them because the Falcons are 10th in kickoff coverage.  The Falcons are also 11th in punt coverage.

HB Jacquizz Rodgers has a 77-yard kickoff return this year and is averaging almost 27 yards per return.  CB Dominique Franks is the punt returner.

Prediction: I still don’t trust this team, especially coming off a feel-good victory.  I also don’t trust the Giants’ defense.  And if Prince Amukamara can’t play or isn’t effective, it could get ugly.   On paper, I think the Giants match up pretty well against the Falcons, but the Giants have not won back-to-back games since October.  The roller coaster continues with a loss.

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Eric Kennedy

Founder and owner of BigBlueInteractive.com, which is now entering its 20th season. Follow Eric on Twitter @BigBlueInteract.

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