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Playoff Preview: Falcons at Giants

Part 4 of our team-by-team breakdown of this weekend's NFL playoff action

Falcons-Giants is a matchup between consistency and wild peaks and valleys, a contest between sober achievement and dramatic attainment, a battle between the comfort of balance and the glee of sudden strikes. Deciding it will come down to one simple question: Which Giants team is going to show up on Sunday?

The Falcons, of course, are our slow but always steady team. As Aaron Schatz noted on Tuesday’s B.S. Report, the Falcons are the most consistent team in football. They have just one bad loss all year, a 16-13 defeat at the hands of the Buccaneers in Week 3 that saw the Falcons lose both of the game’s fumbles and run for a total of just 30 yards. Their other losses have been to the Saints (twice), Texans, Packers, and a healthy Bears team. They’ve known that they were making the playoffs since about Thanksgiving, as they had a 6-4 record with games against the Vikings, Panthers, Jaguars, and Bucs still to come. None of their veterans have had a career year, but everybody who would have been expected to produce has put up solid numbers while staying relatively healthy. Perhaps slow-and-steady is the wrong word; this is a magazine-preview team, since everything you might have read about them in July basically turned out to be true.

The Giants? Well, not so much. They were a lock to make the playoffs in Week 9 after beating the Patriots, raising their record to 6-2, but their traditional second-half collapse set in with a four-game losing streak, at which point it was totally clear that they would miss the playoffs and fire head coach Tom Coughlin. Instead, the Giants won 3 of 4, sweeping the Cowboys and essentially eliminating the Jets from playoff contention while somehow losing handily to the Redskins for the second time this season. They’ve gotten mammoth seasons out of unlikely contributors and experienced disappointing production from dependable stars while being ravaged by injury. They seem capable of alternating between brilliance and utterly bewildering mistakes on a play-by-play basis.1 They are so routinely the Giants, football’s least routine team.

Giants on Offense

With a home crowd that occasionally seems more excited to boo their team off the field than cheer them onto it, the Giants really have one of the worst home-field advantages in all of football. Historically, they get very little out of playing in New Jersey. The change between their average score differential at home as opposed to on the road from 2002 to 2010 was just 1.2 points, which was the second-worst rate in football.2 This year, the Giants were 4-4 at home while outscoring their opposition by a total of one point, and they were 5-3 on the road, with a total score differential of -7 points.

That malaise at home extends to the quarterback. For the third year in five, Eli Manning’s passer rating was better on the road than it was at home, albeit by an ever-so-slight margin: 92.5 at home, 93.3 on the road. His completion percentage and yards per attempt were higher at home, but he also threw more interceptions in the unfriendly confines of MetLife Stadium. You might attribute the lack of home improvement to the often-uncomfortable weather conditions Manning faces in North Jersey, but Manning’s predecessors as Giants quarterback (notably Phil Simms) were better at home than they were on the road, as are most quarterbacks. The split doesn’t imply anything specific about Manning’s style of play or suggest a failing, but it’s certainly weird.

Unfortunately for Giants fans, those home issues extend to the playoffs. Despite the fact that Manning’s already won a Super Bowl, he has yet to win a home playoff game. It’s an extremely small sample size, but Manning has been far worse at home during the postseason than he has been outside of Jersey:

Of course, Manning has also never had an offense quite like this one to work with. After his receivers tipped enough passes to the opposition last year for Manning to lead the league in interceptions, he’s gotten great work from Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz after the catch this year. Cruz, of course, pushed the Giants into the playoffs with touchdowns of 74 and 99 yards over the past two weeks, and virtually all of the yardage on those plays came after the catch. Then again, Cruz did nearly fumble away a win over the Cardinals and tipped a pass inside the 5-yard line to the Seahawks for a game-sealing pick-six, so he had some work to do. Well, he also had an incredible one-handed catch against Seattle for a long touchdown. OK. See! He’s the embodiment of this year’s Giants.

Depending on who is actually healthy on either side of the ball, the Falcons could match up well with the Giants’ receivers. Nicks was at less than 100 percent heading into the Week 17 win over the Cowboys thanks to a hamstring injury, and he ended up serving primarily as a decoy. His touchdown catch came on a play in which the Cowboys were lost in coverage and ended up with Orlando Scandrick sprinting out to the edge just before the snap. Because of Nicks’ size, it seems likely that the Falcons would match up their larger corner, Dunta Robinson,3 on him. The smaller, speedier Cruz is likely to draw the attention of Brent Grimes, who sat out four of the final five games of the season after having his knee scoped.

The real advantage for the Giants could come in the slot, though, where Mario Manningham should be nearing 100 percent after some knee issues. He should be able to routinely beat Falcons slot corner Chris Owens. The Giants will also hope to get starting tight end Jake Ballard back from a knee injury, and that may end up being a compelling matchup to watch. Opposing teams throw 8.9 passes per game to their starting tight end against the Falcons, more than the average against any other defense in football. What do they get for it? Not very much. The Falcons have the best defensive DVOA on passes to those tight ends.

While they should have some success in the passing game, don’t expect the Giants to enjoy consistent success running the football. The Falcons have the third-best run defense DVOA in the league, stopping opposing backs for no gain or a loss on 23 percent of carries. That’s the second-best rate in football. After failing to learn their lesson following the Brandon Jacobs contract, the Giants gave Ahmad Bradshaw a contract extension this year and promptly got a season with his lowest rushing average as a pro. Neither back is a receiving threat out of the backfield, so it’s hard to imagine them having a real impact on the game this Sunday.

Falcons on Offense

As is their custom under Tom Coughlin, the Giants’ pass defense fell off dramatically during the second half of the 2011 season. After ranking 12th in the league in pass defense DVOA during Weeks 1-9, Big Blue fell off to 26th during Weeks 10-17.4 That drop coincided pretty closely with a decline in the sacks produced by their star pass-rushers. During the first eight games of the year, the Giants sacked opposing quarterbacks on 9.3 percent of dropbacks, which was the third-highest rate in the league. Over the final eight games, though, the Giants only sacked the quarterback 6.6 percent of the time. That was right at league average, 17th.5

The Giants simply need to get pass pressure to compete on defense; thanks to injuries, their secondary can’t keep up with talented passing attacks. Good pass pressure will take away Atlanta’s favorite pass play, the deep curl with Roddy White. Star cornerback Corey Webster has held down the fort and played at a Pro Bowl level on one side of the field, but he injured his hamstring in practice this week and might be limited on Sunday. If he isn’t able to play, it would be disastrous for the Giants.

Opposite him is Aaron Ross, who often serves as the primary target for most opposing quarterbacks. The Giants move Webster around with the opposing no. 1 receiver to try to hide Ross against the lesser options in the league, but this weekend, that just means Ross will end up shadowing Julio Jones for most of the day. As a player whose lack of speed and top-end athleticism limits him from being an effective cornerback, Ross is a bad matchup for Jones. Unfortunately, the Giants don’t really have much of a choice. Prince Amukamara, the 2011 first-rounder, is still learning on the job, and he’ll have to stay in the slot while marking the speedy Harry Douglas.

The worst matchup for the Giants, though, will be at tight end. If they want to give their cornerbacks safety help and prevent against the big play, Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez is going to end up being covered by a linebacker, either Michael Boley or Chase Blackburn. Boley would be the better option, since Blackburn is a special teams wizard who was out of the league for most of this season before being brought back and stretched into a starting role. The Falcons should have a lot of success on third down by throwing to Gonzalez and running back Jacquizz Rodgers. The Falcons are the sixth-best team in the NFL at picking up third downs, converting 44.4 percent of the time.

So, we’ve harped on how important it is for the Giants to get pass pressure. Will they? We have absolutely no idea. Jason Pierre-Paul has rightly attracted attention for his breakout season, but it’s unclear who will be getting the bulk of the snaps across from him. Osi Umenyiora came back from the dreaded high ankle sprain and had two sacks of Tony Romo last week, but he apparently reinjured the ankle during practice this week. Justin Tuck has struggled through an injury-marred season and has just five sacks, but he’s picked one up in each of the final two games. That sounds great, but the Falcons have managed to piece together some incredible pass protection despite benching left tackle Sam Baker and turning over the right side of their line. Over the final five games of the season, Matt Ryan dropped back 176 times and was sacked on just four plays.

The Giants might turn to their Four Aces package on defense — where Pierre-Paul, Umenyiora, Tuck, and a fourth player (perhaps linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka) all play at the same time on the defensive line to try to prevent double-teams while creating havoc — but that could create opportunities for an otherwise mundane Falcons running game. A big game against the disinterested Buccaneers in Week 17 helped make Michael Turner’s final numbers look good (301 carries, 1,340 yards, 11 touchdowns, 4.5 yards per carry), but Turner’s spent most of the year looking like a shell of the player who broke out in 2008. Atlanta’s rushing attack is just 25th in DVOA, and Turner himself ranks 39th among qualifying backs in the same stat.

Special Teams

The fantastic work done by Eric Weems for the Falcons last year has disappeared. Weems returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown before being selected to the Pro Bowl last season, but his yardage on both sorts of returns is down dramatically this season.

New York’s enjoyed a great season from punter Steve Weatherford, who has been worth 10.9 points of field position this season. Unfortunately, the Giants have given back most of that performance on punt returns, where five different return men have combined to average just 6.1 yards per return. It’s safe to say that neither team wants this game to come down to special teams.

The Prediction

Although Detroit and New Orleans are getting all the “shootout” attention, this game has just as much potential to turn into a scoring spree. The Falcons should be able to dial up some big plays on Ross and Amukamara, but the Giants may very well be able to do the same on an injured Grimes or an overmatched Owens. The final outcome all depends, as we said earlier, upon which Giants team shows up. After two emotional wins to get in, we suspect that it will be a worn-out one. Falcons 30, Giants 21.

Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Previously from Bill Barnwell:

Cashing Out Some Preseason NFL Bets
Gang Green Lacked Leaders
Handicapping the 2011 NFL MVP Race, 2.0

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

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