Debuting playoff football at MetLife Stadium in a big way on Sunday afternoon has earned the New York Giants a return trip to a football shrine and a chance to extend their season further.
After spotting the fifth-seeded Atlanta Falcons (10-7) an early second-quarter safety, fourth-seeded New York (10-7) scored the final 24 points to dominate the Falcons, 24-2, in an NFC wild-card playoff game in East Rutherford, New Jersey to set up a rematch with the top-seeded and defending Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers (15-1) at historic Lambeau Field next week.
With the Falcons’ defense playing Cruz control (paying a lot of attention to the Giants’ leading receiver while holding him to just two catches for 28 yards), quarterback Eli Manning threw three touchdown passes – including two to wide receiver Hakeem Nicks – as the Giants had their finest rushing and defensive games of the season.
New York’s defense didn’t allow a point for the first time this season while limiting Atlanta to just 247 total yards.
Meanwhile, running backs Brandon Jacobs (14 carries, 92 yards) and Ahmad Bradshaw (14 carries, 63 yards) helped the Giants to a season-high in rushing yards against the Falcons’ sixth-ranked run defense to outgain the Falcons 172-64 on the ground and control the ball for over nine minutes more (34:34) than Atlanta (25:26).
The Giants also came up with a pair of key fourth down stops deep in their own end, the first of which came on the Falcons’ third possession, after Atlanta opened with a couple of punts and New York punted on its first three possessions.
The Falcons went on a 14-play, 66-yard drive that consumed 6:41 (mostly to end the first quarter), but on the first the play of the second period, quarterback Matt Ryan (24-41, 199 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT, 2 sacks) was unable to convert a quarterback sneak on 4th-and-1 from the Giants’ 24-yard line.
A holding penalty on right guard Chris Snee pushed New York back to its own 14-yard line, and two plays later, backup safety James Sanders (who entered the game after starting safety William Moore was injured) nearly sacked Manning (23-32, 277 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT, 1 sack) on a second-down blitz, forcing Manning to throw the ball in desperation from the end zone, to no one.
Manning, who won his first home playoff game, and who threw at least three touchdowns in a postseason game for the first time, was flagged for intentional grounding, giving Atlanta a safety and a 2-0 lead with 13:44 left in the first half.
The Falcons got the ball right back off of the ensuing free kick, but they punted, and the Giants embarked a scoring trip that took up more than half of the quarter.
On the third play of the drive, Manning scrambled for 14 yards and a first down on 3rd-and-2 from the Giants’ 23-yard line, and five plays later, Jacobs ran right for 34 yards (his longest run of the season, and only the New York’s fifth of at least 20 yards this year) to the Atlanta 15-yard line.
Bradshaw rushed for nine yards up the middle to the Falcons’ 6-yard line on the next play before Jacobs was hit for an apparent loss, but spun to his left and moved forward for a big first down on 4th-and-1.
On the ensuing play, Manning threw a four-yard touchdown pass to Nicks (6 catches, 115 yards, 2 TD), to give New York its first lead, 7-2, with 2:47 left in the half.
After a three-and-out, the Giants might have had a first down at their own 47-yard line, but they appeared receive a bad spot that was not challenged by head coach Tom Coughlin after a nine-yard reception by Nicks on second down.
Manning then threw incomplete to Nicks on third down and New York punted, but the Atlanta ran out of time while trying to get into field goal range before the half ended.
As the Giants’ continued to keep all of the Falcons’ primary weapons in check, they put the game away with scores on each of their first three possessions of the second half, during which New York outgained Atlanta 312-120 after holding just a one-yard edge (128-127) at intermission.
Dangerous wide receivers Julio Jones (7 catches, 64 yards) and Roddy White (5 catches, 52 yards), future hall of fame tight end Tony Gonzalez (4 catches, 44 yards), and the league’s third-leading rusher this season, Michael Turner (15 carries, 41 yards), couldn’t do nearly enough against a New York defense that was the most healthy inspired, and focused as it had been all season.
And, that wasn’t the only Giants unit that played that had success.
“We were clicking on all cylinders, offense, defense, and special teams,” said Nicks, who helped the Giants add to their lead on the New York’s first possession of the second half, after Giants’ cornerback Aaron Ross was lost for the remainder of the game due to concussion symptoms following a collision while trying to break up a pass on the Falcons’ first drive of the half.
Nicks caught a 19-yard pass from Manning on 3rd-and-8, to the Falcons’ 45-yard line, and five plays later, Jacobs ran to the right for 30 yards to the Atlanta 5-yard line.
The 11-play, 72-yard drive stalled from there however, when no flag was thrown despite cornerback Christopher Owens (5 tackles, 2 PD) mauling Nicks on a third-down incompletion at the goal line. New York instead, settled for a 22-yard field goal from kicker Lawrence Tynes, which put the Giants up 10-2, with 7:51 left in the third quarter.
Ryan then completed four passes, including a 14-yard completion to White on 3rd-and-15, to help the Falcons move 58 yards to the Giants’ 21-yard line, but he was stopped for the second time on a 4th-and-1 quarterback sneak.
Three plays later, Nicks caught a third-down pass over the middle about six yards past the first down marker, made some incredible stutter-step moves to avoid three tacklers, squeezed his way through the middle of the Falcons’ defense and broke free on a career-long 72-yard touchdown reception that extended New York’s lead to 17-2, with 2:44 remaining in the period.
Nicks celebrated the score in the end zone by taking some advice from safety Antrel Rolle (9 tackles), who earlier told his teammate to mock the Falcons’ old “Dirty Birds” dance if Nicks would score.
Linebacker Chase Blackburn (9 tackle), who helped stop Ryan on the quarterback’s second sneak attempt earlier, stuffed Turner on 3rd-and-1 from the Atlanta 28-yard line to force the fourth of five Atlanta three-and-outs.
From there, the Giants embarked on their second 85-yard touchdown drive, this time, on ten plays, in 5:38, as Manning completed five passes to as many different receivers, the last of which was a 27-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Mario Manningham (4 catches, 68 yards, 1 TD) to close the scoring with 9:55 left in the game.
The drive was typical of how Manning effectively spread the ball around, as he completed passes to eight different receivers, six of whom caught at least one pass for at least 13 yards.
A fourth consecutive drive of over 70 yards ended with no points as Tynes missed a 32-yard field goal with 2:57 remaining, but the Giants had secured their third straight win long before then.
The good luck charm in that streak was beating a Ryan. With New York’s season on the brink following a humiliating home loss to Washington, the Giants began to turn things around by beating their stadium co-tenants, the New York Jets, and head coach Rex Ryan. They followed that up by winning the NFC East over the Dallas Cowboys and Ryan’s brother Rob Ryan, before the win over Atlanta’s quarterback completed the Ryan tri-fecta of victories.
Of much greater importance to the Giants was securing their first postseason win since 2008, their first one at home since beating Minnesota in the 2000 NFC title game at Giants Stadium, and a second shot at the Packers, who barely beat the Giants on the road, five weeks ago.
Ever since that game, there has been talk of New York possibly repeating a magical run similar to the one it made to the Super Bowl XLII title.
That journey began with a regular season finale loss to the New England Patriots in 2007, which sparked enough confidence in the Giants for New York to win their next games, including the NFC title game in Green Bay and a rematch with the heavily favored Patriots in the Super Bowl.
The loss to New England that year was by a count of 38-35, the same score which the Packers beat the Giants by, with a field goal as time expired, on December 4th.
Although a good portion of New York’s roster has turned over since the Giants’ Super Bowl XLII win, a lot of the key players and ingredients remain – especially, quarterback Eli Manning, a main part of New York’s potent pass rush, and a rushing game that suddenly resembles the one that helped the Giants to their Super Bowl championship four years ago.
Whether that will be enough for New York to continue a similar run this season remains to be seen.
But, the Giants will at least get their chance to continue to write a great story in Green Bay again, when the Giants visit the Packers on Sunday, at 4:30 pm ET.
Despite losing just once in a 22-game span that started with a 45-17 home thrashing of the Giants in Week 16 last season, Green Bay would be wise to be ready for a New York team which is the most confident it’s been all season.
Referring to the Packers’ narrow victory over the Giants this season, Cruz said of the Giants’ next contest, “If it’s anything like the last one, it should be a great game,” Cruz said.
Chiming in, defensive end Osi Umenyiora showed respect for next week’s opponent while heeding a warning for Green Bay. “We’ve got our work cut out for us, but they’ve got their work cut out for them too,” he said.
And, on the unit charged with stopping the NFL’s highest-scoring team next week, Coughlin said, “I think today we played outstanding defense and that set the tone for everything else that happened in the game. It was wonderful to see it, and it has happened over the last two or three weeks of the season. If we can continue to play defense like that, we can make ourselves heard in this tournament.”
Just like four years ago, perhaps.