EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – In the year of the passer, can the New York Giants make this the postseason of the pass rusher?
Fueled by a defensive line that recorded two sacks, stopped a pair of quarterback sneaks on fourth-and-inches and, more important, reduced their foes' plan of attack to calls born of fear, the Giants beat the Atlanta Falcons 24-2 in the NFC wild-card playoffs. That sets up a Giants rematch with the Green Bay Packers next Sunday at Lambeau Field.
Beating Atlanta is one thing, of course. The Falcons have become the NFC's unofficial version of the Washington Generals come playoff time, going one-and-out for the third time in four years with Matt Ryan at quarterback (they missed the playoffs in his second season). In the previous two postseason appearances, the Falcons lost to the eventual NFC Super Bowl team (Arizona in 2008 and Green Bay last season).
While on the subject of the title game, it should be noted that the last time the Giants looked anything close to this fearsome up front was in the 2007 season, when they went through Green Bay in the NFC championship game on the way to a Super Bowl title. With defensive end Osi Umenyiora (three sacks in two games since returning from an ankle injury) now in the rotation, the Giants are finally healthy up front.
"Obviously, we don't have a Hall of Famer yet like we had [in 2007] with [former defensive end Michael Strahan], but we've got a lot of guys who are playing well and we're playing well together," defensive end Justin Tuck said.
But you have to wonder if the Giants have enough up front to cause Green Bay problems. Just as in the matchup of the New Orleans Saints against the San Francisco 49ers, the theme of the NFC playoffs will be whether defense overcomes offense. In this case, can it overcome historic offense? The 49ers will have to stop Drew Brees coming off his record-setting season for passing yards (5,476). The Giants will have to stop likely league MVP Aaron Rodgers and his record-setting season for quarterback rating (122.5).
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Rodgers has owned the Giants the past two times the teams have played. On Dec. 4, Rodgers lit up New York, going 28-of-46 for 369 yards, four touchdowns and one interception on the way to a dramatic 38-35 victory featuring a last-second field goal. Last season, Rodgers was even better in a blowout win, completing 25-of-37 for 404 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
In both those games, however, the Giants didn't have their defensive line revved up the way it was on Sunday. This wasn't just about the athleticism the Giants have demonstrated with the likes of end Jason Pierre-Paul. This included the brute force required on the most primitive of football plays, two fourth-and-inches gut shots that New York stopped in the second and third quarters.
Each time, Atlanta was in field-goal range, but gambled to get more, running Ryan into the middle. All he found on both occasions was a wall of blue.
"All you're thinking is to get a stop and give the ball to our offense," New York defensive tackle Chris Canty said. "That's like getting a turnover, it's so huge for momentum."
Worse for Atlanta, the Giants seemed to have a very good idea of exactly what to expect. Both Canty and Tuck said they studied the exact quarterback sneak plays the Falcons tried to run.
"We saw the second one on film this week," Tuck said, referring to a play in which the Falcons had four players shift before the snap. "They were trying to draw us off. We'd seen that."
What New York did in holding Atlanta to 247 offensive yards was even more impressive than the high-quality work of quarterback Eli Manning (23-of-32, 277 yards, three touchdown), wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (six catches, 115 yards, two touchdowns, including a 72-yard catch-and-run) and the Giants' running game (31 carries, 172 yards).
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"When those defensive guys are cranked up like that, it makes it really easy to do what we have to do," said Manning, who was responsible for the only points by the Falcons when he was called for grounding the ball while in the end zone.
As impressive as the defensive effort was, let's put it in some perspective. "Matty Ice" Ryan has actually been "Matty on Ice" in the postseason. In his three playoff appearances, Ryan has compiled a quarterback rating of only 71.2 (70 completions, 110 attempts, 584 yards, three touchdowns, four interceptions) and has been sacked 10 times. His average per attempt is a paltry 5.3 yards (you have to be in the 7.0 range to be successful on a consistent basis).
However, not all of the blame falls on the quarterback. Rather than challenge defenses with aggressive play-calling, Atlanta has played scared.
"We talked about trying to establish the running game because we didn't think we could pass protect," said Falcons wide receiver Roddy White, who was limited to five catches for 52 yards with a long of only 21 yards. "We played right into their hands. I mean, if they sack us every down and we can't move the ball, OK. But let's try."
[ Photo gallery: Giants dominate Falcons in NFC wild-card game ]
White's remarks echo private comments of several other players who have pointed at a disconnection who offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey's approach. Numerous players believe Mularkey is too conservative, particularly in tense situations like the playoffs.
Or as one player put it: "Something has to be said to [coach] Mike [Smith] this offseason."
For now, the important issue is whether the Giants will have something to say in Green Bay.
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