NFC wild card playoffs 2012: Saints look to top Lions at home, Giants take on Falcons

January 6, 2012

The NFC wild card matchups pit the surging New York Giants against the Atlanta Falcons, and on Sunday Eli Manning will look to continue the performances he put in the previous two weekends. As Mark Maske wrote:

Atlanta Falcons (10-6) at New York Giants (9-7)

Sunday, 1 p.m., MetLife Stadium, FOX (WTTG-5)

How the Falcons can win… The Falcons are a relatively balanced team, at least by the standards of some of this year’s top playoff contenders. They ranked 10th in the league in total offense and 12th in total defense during the regular season. The Atlanta defense ranked sixth against the run, and seems likely to shut down a Giants’ running game, which struggled all year. The Falcons rediscovered RB Michael Turner when he ran for 172 yards Sunday, and QB Matt Ryan has the receivers — in WRs Roddy White and Julio Jones and TE Tony Gonzalez — to exploit the Giants’ 29th-ranked pass defense.

How the Giants can win… The Giants enter the playoffs feeling good about themselves after beating the Jets and Cowboys on the final two weekends of the regular season to win the NFC East. They get to play at MetLife Stadium again, and they’re talking about re-creating the magic of their postseason run to a Super Bowl title after the 2007 season. QB Eli Manning has been one of the league’s most dependable players all season, leading the Giants to five victories with fourth-quarter comebacks. The defense played well against the Cowboys, sacking QB Tony Romo six times. DE Jason Pierre-Paul has become the most disruptive of the Giants’ pass rushers; he had 16-1/2 sacks during the regular season.

Giants DE Justin Tuck took a shot at the Falcons this week, calling their offensive linemen ‘dirtbags,’ a comment that should certainly liven up the trench battle on Sunday. As Matt Brooks explained:

The NFL playoffs don’t truly begin until the trash talking commences.

Well, thanks to New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, we’re officially underway.

On Monday, Tuck took a shot at Atlanta’s offensive line and its reputation for extracurricular activity in advance of their Sunday wild-card matchup.

“We know they have that quote-unquote reputation,” Tuck said. “But in a way it is kind of exciting. Most people, you would call them dirtbags. But it is what it is.”

There was a time when the Falcons embraced the nickname “Dirty Birds,” but “Dirtbags” has a slightly different connotation.

Tuck stressed the word “most” in his comments when asked about the remarks on ESPN’s “NFL32” on Tuesday night — even invoking the third-person.

In the other NFC matchup, the New Orleans Saints host the Detroit Lions in the Superdone, where the Saints are unbeaten this year. As Mark Maske wrote:

Detroit Lions (10-6) at New Orleans Saints (13-3)

Saturday, 8 p.m., Superdome, NBC (WRC-4)

How the Lions can win… Detroit has a chance because of its offensive firepower with QB Matthew Stafford and WR Calvin Johnson. Stafford joined the Saints’ Drew Brees and the Patriots’ Tom Brady in topping 5,000 passing yards during the regular season, getting there with a 520-yard performance in Sunday’s loss to the Packers. Johnson led the league in receiving yards. The Lions will be familiar with the environment, having lost at New Orleans in early December. But they certainly need their defense to play better than it did Sunday at Lambeau Field when the Lions lost to the Packers, 45-41. Detroit had no answers for Green Bay’s backup QB Matt Flynn, who threw for 480 yards and six TDs. The Lions will need a few stops against Brees and the Saints.

How the Saints can win… The Saints enter the playoffs with an eight-game winning streak and a 13-3 record, and they were 8-0 at home during the regular season. They have the league’s top-ranked offense built around Brees, who set NFL single-season records for passing yards and completion percentage. The Saints’ plan is simple: turn Brees loose and let him outscore any opponent. Few teams can keep up. TE Jimmy Graham and RB Darren Sproles create major matchup problems for virtually any defense. The question is whether the Saints can continue to get by with a defense that ranked 30th against the pass and 24th overall during the regular season. New Orleans did fare better in scoring defense, ranking 13th in the league.

The Saints will look to their cadre of running backs to provide the necessary counterpunch to Drew Brees if they are to advance in the playoffs. As AP explained:

Lost in all the gaudy, record-breaking numbers Drew Brees puts up in the Saints’ passing game is the fact that New Orleans’ running game isn’t half bad.

In fact, the Saints wound up ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing, an eyebrow-raising statistic even for Brees himself.

“Typically, I’d say when you look at an offense, it would probably be hard to be top 10 passing and rushing because there are only so many plays in a game and so you’re running it more you’re throwing it more,” Brees said. “It’s great that we’ve been able to sustain the efficiency in both and create for the other, especially when you look at the overall yardage, both passing and rushing. It’s pretty unique.”

While the Saints led the NFL in passing with 467 yards per game, they also averaged 133 yards on the ground, which was better than 26 other teams, despite the fact that the Saints attempted a pass on 61 percent of their plays (662 pass attempts and 441 rushes out of 1,093 total regular-season plays).

New Orleans won’t be able to hand the ball to rookie running back Mark Ingram, who will miss the playoffs because of his toe injury, but the Saints still have ample depth at the position with Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory all suiting up Saturday night for the playoff opener against the Detroit Lions.

More NFL playoffs coverage from Washington Post Sports:

Wild-card previews: Falcons-Giants | Steelers-Broncos | Bengals-Texans | Lions-Saints

Mark Maske: Does defense still win Super Bowls?

Early Lead: John Elway tells Tim Tebow to ‘just pull the trigger’

Early Lead: Pittsburgh’s Ryan Clark won’t play in Denver due to sickle cell trait

Early Lead: Yates, Dalton ailing

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