After 12 months of waiting, the Atlanta Falcons finally have their opportunity at redemption this Sunday in New York. The 17 weeks of the regular season have been all about getting to this point and nothing more, righting the wrongs of their home playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers last January. A home playoff game would have been nice, but they now have the chance to prove the doubters wrong, do things the hard way, and make progress through the playoffs on the road. They have the talent to do it–they had the talent to do it last year and they are, if anything, a more talented team now–but can they put in the big performance when it is needed to get that elusive playoff win?
They face an opponent in the New York Giants who, having crawled out of an incredibly disappointing NFC East, have very little pressure on them. At times this season they’ve heard calls for their head coach to be sacked, players to be cut, and just generally for a team overhaul and fresh start. A team playing with the pressure off in the playoffs can be a dangerous thing and with the Giants’ passing game humming in spite of an offensive line that is falling apart at the seams, the Falcons’ defense will have their hands full.
One team comes in under immense pressure to perform, the other with low expectations but on the back of a playoff-clinching victory just a week ago. Here are three focus points that could end up swinging the game in the favor of either, determining which side faces a likely trip to Green Bay on divisional weekend.
Both teams have favorable matchups against their opposing left tackles this Sunday with both Eli Manning and Matt Ryan likely to be under pressure. Will Svitek (-4.7 pass block) faces the “Haitian Sensation” Jean Pierre-Paul (+14.5 pass rush) while David Diehl (-35.5 pass block) faces off with John Abraham (+31.7 pass rush) in the more lopsided mismatch. Diehl has moved back outside to tackle after the loss of William Beatty to a detached retina and has given up at least four pressures in five of his six starts at the end of the season. While you wouldn’t bet against Pierre-Paul continuing his trend of game-changing plays, it’s Abraham who continues the Falcon trend of being under pressure to perform. Diehl is coming off of a comprehensive beat down at the hands of DeMarcus Ware (two sacks, two hits, three pressures last Sunday) and he can’t be in a good place mentally to think he can cope with Abraham. The key for Abraham, however, is that he must finish plays. Manning is fourth in the league for his completion percentage (54.3%) when pressured and has thrown fewer interceptions (seven) when pressured, than when not (nine). Matt Ryan is not in that same bracket, completing 44.4% of his passes when pressured with five interceptions against four touchdowns. The end who best takes advantage of his matchup and finishes plays will be giving his side a big leg up towards victory on Wildcard Weekend.
One of the Falcon Five
The pressure for the Falcons falls squarely on their offensive quintet of Ryan, Michael Turner, Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez. How these five perform will likely determine whether they walk away with the franchise’s first playoff victory since a 30-point Wild Card victory over the Rams in 2004. Of these five, Gonzalez comes up with, arguably, the most favorable matchup. The Giants really lack a linebacker or safety that they can confidently put on him and expect to keep the most prolific tight end in league history quiet. Michael Boley (-4.4 coverage) is one potential candidate to cover Gonzalez and he completed the season by giving up 114 yards on 11 catches in the final two games. At safety, Antrel Rolle finished strong (+2.5 coverage vs. Dallas) but until that point (-15.0 coverage prior to Week 17) had been a massive disappointment. The Giants will be bringing the heat in this game, but if the Falcons can make good use of Gonzalez–either in his matchup or by taking advantage of added attention sent his way–Atlanta should have plenty enough offensive talent to move the ball.
The emergence of Victor Cruz (+10.9 receiving) has been one of the stories of the season and watching him play receiver, with his stunning route fakes, has been one of 2011’s most enjoyable aspects. How the Falcons keep Cruz quiet will be interesting to watch as it is unlikely that their best corner will matchup with him very often. With more playing time, Brent Grimes (+12.3 coverage) would have made our All-Pro Team this year and Cruz only sees 17.8% of his snaps at RWR, the only time he would matchup with Grimes. Cruz is likely to spend most of the game matched up with Dominique Franks (-1.2 coverage) who has seen an expanded role since Grimes’ injury in the middle of the season. Franks has only given up more than three catches and 50 yards in coverage once this season–against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week. How Franks copes with the toughest examination of his slot skills will be the key matchup when the Giants have the ball. Cruz has three 150-yard games in the last six weeks; another one of those and the Giants could be on their way to their divisional playoffs.
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