In their NFL Play 60 commercial, the Atlanta Falcons seem so happy riding on that bus. They’re bouncing along, smiling. Arthur Blank is happy. Everybody is happy.
The playoffs, though, haven’t been such a happy ride. The Falcons (10-6) have advanced to postseason play in three of the last four years now, but last year, as the NFC’s No. 1 seed, they were bounced by the Green Bay Packers.
They’ll face a 9-7 New York Giants team that, at least when it comes to the other team they share a city with, has been a model of decorum in a wild-card game today (1 p.m. EST, Fox) at MetLife Stadium. The Giants, finally playing steadier on offense and defense, advanced to the playoffs after two years on the sidelines.
Both teams are known for the glitzy big play — playoffs eye candy — and the big play is a big reason why quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Eli Manning, MVP of the Super Bowl win four years ago, are facing off today.
With a well-rounded attack that includes running back Michael Turner, wide receiver Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez, Julio Jones has been making big plays. The Falcons moved up to No. 6 in the draft to take him and he and Ryan have connected on eight touchdowns. Four have been for more than 48 yards and Jones led all rookies with 54 catches for 959 yards and eight touchdowns. It’s no wonder that Ryan finished with a career-best 29 touchdown passes.
They’ll face a Giants defense has been performing well of late. New York has had 11 sacks in its last two games and has won three of the last four with Osi Umenyiora, Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka on a mission.
On defense, the Falcons get a break because the Giants finished last in the league in rushing, averaging less than 90 yards a game. As a consequence, Manning has had to step up and has he ever, passing for nearly 5,000 yards and keeping Bad Eli, he of the often inexplicable turnovers and quizzical expressons, at bay with five fourth-quarter comebacks an six game-winning drives this season. (Is this a good time to point out that he has never won a home playoff game?)
Hakeem Nicks caught 76 passes for 1,192 yards, but had important and maddening drops at times. Mario Manningham caught 39 passes for 523 yards and tight end Jake Ballard averaged 13.4-yards per catch. But the big story was the emergence of Victor Cruz a second-year, undrafted player out of Massachusetts. He has caught 82 passes for a team-record 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns (including a 99-yarder against the Jets). He has caught five touchdown passes of 68 yards or more.
The Giants-Falcons winner plays the Packers in Green Bay on Sunday (Jan. 15) in a 4:30 p.m. EST game.
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