The New York Giants are starting to see similarities between this season and their 2007 run to the Super Bowl.
These teams have never met in the playoffs, and that will change Sunday in the first postseason game at MetLife Stadium.
New York got off to a 6-2 start before a four-game losing streak brought back memories of collapses in recent seasons. The Giants, though, went 3-1 over their final four games and won the NFC East by beating Dallas 31-14 at home last Sunday night.
Now the team believes it is playing its best football heading into the postseason, like the Giants did in 2007 when they knocked off three division champions before shocking 18-0 New England in Super Bowl XLII.
“I would not want to face the New York Giants in the playoffs right now,” running back Brandon Jacobs said. “I got the same feeling (that I had in 2007). There’s a lot of guys that are here that weren’t here a couple of years ago when we went, but it’s the same kind of feeling that I have.”
Atlanta, meanwhile, is back in the playoffs after a 10-6 season. The Falcons were the No. 1 seed a year ago before getting routed by Green Bay in the divisional round and also fell at Arizona in 2008 in Ryan and Smith’s first season with the club.
“I know we’ve had two postseason games prior to this,” Smith said. “We haven’t gotten the outcome we’ve wanted. We are learning from those experiences. We’re going to use those as growing experiences and we’re looking forward to competing this week, and that’s not just Matt Ryan.”
Ryan enters off his best season, throwing 29 touchdown passes to tie the Giants’ Eli Manning for the league’s sixth-highest total. That figure, along with Ryan’s 4,177 yards and 92.2 passer rating are career bests, with receivers Roddy White and rookie Julio Jones combining for 2,252 yards and 16 TDs.
“All the stuff that happened in the past doesn’t really make a difference,” said Ryan, who has totaled 385 yards, three touchdowns and four interceptions in the postseason. “It comes down to preparing this week and doing whatever we can to keep advancing throughout the playoffs.”
Manning, meanwhile, finished 67 yards shy of 5,000 to reach his second Pro Bowl. He set an NFL record with 15 fourth-quarter touchdown passes and his fourth-quarter passer rating of 110.0 was the NFL’s second-best mark.
His season was notable since he led the Giants to five victories when they trailed in the final period.
“Something coach (Tom) Coughlin has stressed all year and has kind of been one of our mottos or one of the things that he’s talked about throughout the year is finishing the fourth quarter - finishing games and ending games and taking advantage of finishing the season strong,” Manning said.
Manning has been aided in his heroics by the stunning emergence of Victor Cruz, who finished third in the league with 1,536 receiving yards. Cruz has made big plays the previous two games—a 99-yard TD reception against the Jets on Dec. 24 and last Sunday’s 74-yard score against the Cowboys.
Cruz has added another dimension to a Giants offense in which Manning owns a league-high 35 completions of at least 21 yards through the air.
“They are very explosive and that is the thing that is evident if you look at the plays,” Smith said. “They have had 71 plays of 20 yards or more this season so they are a top-10 team in terms of creating those plays.”
While the Giants are last in the league with 89.2 rushing yards per game, the Falcons have demonstrated more balance with an average of 114.6 thanks to Michael Turner. Turner is third in the NFL with 1,340 yards on the ground.
“He is a load for one and he does a good job running behind his pads,” said Giants linebacker Michael Boley, who played for the Falcons from 2005-08. “He is patient and knows how to find those holes.”
Turner, however, has been bottled up to total 81 yards on 28 carries in the Falcons’ last two playoff losses.
Atlanta will want to utilize Turner to help neutralize the pressure Ryan will face from a Giants pass rush that produced 48 sacks to match Baltimore for third in the NFL, led by Pro Bowler Jason Pierre-Paul’s 16.5. The defensive line has been bolstered by Osi Umenyiora’s return last week after he missed a month with a high ankle sprain and knee problems, and Justin Tuck has shown improvement after battling injuries throughout the year.
New York has 11 sacks over the last two games.
“I think they have some talented guys in their front seven,” Ryan said. “They have defensive ends and guys that can rush the passer and they have really played well the last couple of weeks.”
The Giants won all their games in their 2007 postseason run on the road and have dropped their last two home playoff games since a 41-0 victory over Minnesota in the 2000 NFC title game.
The Falcons last won a playoff game in the 2004 season over St. Louis.