A year ago, the Atlanta Falcons earned the top seed in the NFC ... and were swiftly blown off their home turf by the wild-card Green Bay Packers. Now Atlanta travels to New York as the wild-card team, relishing an opportunity to make some noise. The New York Giants have been inconsistent at best this season at the Meadowlands, where they have a 4-4 home mark, but they have played well the last two weeks and head into the postseason with some momentum. Under less pressure than it was facing last time around, Atlanta appears to be playing loose, which is a positive for them. The winner of this game could go on to do some damage throughout the playoffs.
Here are three key questions approaching this Sunday afternoon's tilt:
Can Atlanta block the Giants' pass rush?
The Giants' defense gets after the quarterback as well as any in the league. With Osi Umenyiora back at his post opposite Jason Pierre-Paul, and with Justin Tuck inside, Matt Ryan could be in for a long day. The Falcons' answer to New York's pass rush lies in the protection schemes they've been running lately. Ryan was sacked 13 times in his first three games this season, but opposing defenses have gotten to Ryan just four times in the last five games. He's attempted 172 passes during this span, an average of 43 attempts between sacks. If those trends hold up this week, the Giants' secondary will not be able to contain Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. Teams have been rolling their coverage toward White and Gonzalez lately, and Jones has taken advantage, catching six touchdown passes in the last four games.
The Giants have every reason to believe their pass rush can get the job done, though, especially playing at home. In the last two games, New York has notched 11 sacks in 107 pass plays -- one every 10 attempts -- and much of the pressure has been generated by the front four, without the aid of blitzes. Ryan will feel them coming, and when he does, it will be important for him to maintain his composure. The Giants' pressure has led to five interceptions and two fumble recoveries over the past three weeks.
Can the Giants stop Michael Turner?
Turner is a premier running back who tore up the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 17 for 172 yards and two touchdowns on just 17 carries. He finished the season as the third-best rusher in the league with 1,340 yards and 11 touchdowns. Turner is better at home than on the road (where he averages just 17 carries and 68 rushing yards per game), but Atlanta is 6-1 when Turner carries the ball at least 20 times. Expect the Falcons to feed him the ball early and often. If they can gain positive yards on the ground and create manageable third-down situations, they can negate the effect of that potent Giants pass rush. New York has improved against the run, though, allowing just 3.9 yards per carry over the last four weeks.
While Turner has enjoyed a fantastic season, he must produce if the Falcons hope to go deep into the playoffs. (The same is true of Ryan.) Turner has just one rushing touchdown in 52 postseason carries, averaging a paltry 3.4 yard per carry. His performance against a weak Tampa team was impressive, but in the five games before that, he was mediocre at best, carrying the ball 84 times for 280 yards (3.3 per carry) and just one touchdown.
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Will Eli stay hot against the Falcons' defense?
Eli Manning will be the difference in this round of the playoffs. He has played very well this year, especially late in games, leading the league in fourth-quarter touchdown passes (15), completion rate, completions and yardage. He has a bevy of weapons at his disposal in Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham. It wouldn't be surprising to see Manning drop back 35-40 times in this game, especially because teams generally don't run against the Falcons' defense. (Atlanta's defense has seen an average of 23 rushing plays per game this season).
Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes returns to action this week. That certainly helps, but the defense has recorded just five fourth-quarter sacks all year -- third-worst in the NFL. The Giants will come out throwing at that secondary right from the opening gun and all the way through the game. Manning and the Giants will fall behind in this one, but who else would you want at quarterback in that scenario?