3TFO: Giants @ Falcons, Week 15
This Sunday afternoon, the Georgia Dome will host a game that will recall last year’s playoffs as much as it will shape this year’s postseason. The Atlanta Falcons were unceremoniously ushered out of the wild-card round last year in a 24-2 loss at the Meadowlands that could have been closer if Matt Ryan didn’t fall inches short on two 4th-and-1 sneaks.
The Falcons are again in the driver’s seat in the NFC, trying to ensure that the only January flight they have to book this year is to New Orleans. The New York Giants would love to reminisce about the first playoff victory of their Super Bowl 2011 run, but they are dangerously close to missing this year’s party. A loss Sunday and a win by either Washington or Dallas, and the G-Men would no longer control their own destiny in the NFC East.
Will the Giants hand the Falcons their first consecutive losses since 2009? Or will Ryan improve on his 32-4 career record at the Georgia Dome? Here are three matchups that could decide the outcome.
David Wilson vs. Falcons Defensive Tackles
It’s looking very likely that Ahmad Bradshaw won’t be able to suit up this week, although that may not worry the New York faithful after David Wilson’s breakout performance against the New Orleans Saints. Finally getting extended playing time in the Giants’ backfield, Week 14’s Best Offensive Sub took the opportunity and ran with it, literally. His three missed tackles and two 15-plus-yard runs for 73 yards were more than he had in his previous 10 games combined. His Breakaway Percentage this season is 63.0, highest among all running backs with more than 10 carries. While Wilson may lack Bradshaw’s hard-nosed running style and reliable pass protection, he brings an explosive dimension to the Giants’ ground game that New York hasn’t seen since Bradshaw’s younger days.
You could say Wilson simply took advantage of a weak Saints defense last week, but New Orleans’ collective run grade is actually higher than the 30th-ranked Falcons. Kroy Biermann’s 11.2 Run Stop Percentage is by far the best mark among all 4-3 defensive ends, but he is the only standout run defender in Atlanta’s front seven. The Giants may decide to avoid Biermann altogether and attack the inside, where the Run Stop Percentage of Jonathan Babineaux (5.6), Vance Walker (4.4), and Peria Jerry (4.2) are all below average. And for all their issues in pass protection this season, Giants center David Baas and guards Chris Snee and Kevin Boothe have excelled in their run blocking. New York has run for 5.5 yards per carry into the A-gaps versus 4.2 YPC on all other designed runs. Wilson can be dangerous in space on the outside, but he may have more success up the gut in this game.
Tony Gonzalez vs. Giants Linebackers
Surprisingly, the worst-graded player on the Falcons’ offense in that wild-card loss was none other than future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez. He earned a -3.5 mark thanks to some horrendous run-blocking, and picked up most of his 44 receiving yards in garbage time. He undoubtedly will be looking for redemption this week, and he’s still playing at a high enough level to find it. His +18.1 receiving grade leads all tight ends, and Jason Witten is his only peer with more receiving yards. Gonzo is particularly dangerous from the slot, where his 47 receptions and 82.5% catch rate is also tops at his position. Jimmy Graham is the only tight end with more receiving yards from the slot.
Speaking of Mr. Graham, the Giants snagged two interceptions and surrendered just 55 yards on nine targets to him last week. They’d love to repeat that performance against Gonzalez, but will rely heavily on their linebackers to do so. Despite Chase Blackburn’s -6.7 coverage grade, his 13.5 Coverage Snaps Per Reception is ninth-best among all inside linebackers, and he hasn’t surrendered a touchdown since Week 1. New York also got a boost against the Saints with the return of Jacquain Williams, arguably their best cover linebacker. The question mark here could be weakside ‘backer Michael Boley. Last year, the veteran allowed the second-fewest receptions per coverage snap among 4-3 outside linebackers. But this year only two 4-3 OLBs have surrendered more than his 487 yards. His coverage snap per reception has fallen from 11.5 to 7.7, and Drew Brees was 12 for 12 for 104 yards when throwing at him last week. If Boley doesn’t rediscover his 2011 form, Gonzalez may fare much better against New York this time around.
Eli Manning vs. Asante Samuel
We can always speculate how injuries to key players like Rob Gronkowski, Matt Schaub, and Ben Roethlisberger altered the 2011 playoffs. But one big loss that flew under the radar was Brent Grimes’ absence from the Falcons’ only playoff game. Grimes was the second-rated cornerback last year behind Darrelle Revis, and without him Eli Manning beat Dominique Franks for four completions, 105 yards, and two touchdowns. Grimes was again sidelined this September with an Achilles injury, but the difference this time around is that the Falcons have Asante Samuel to rely on.
Samuel has been dinged up and has fallen off slightly from his former Pro Bowl level, where he routinely ranked among the Top 10 cornerbacks in coverage snaps per reception. But he is reportedly healthy enough to play this week, and to say that he has Manning’s number is putting it lightly. Since we started charting games in 2008, Samuel has never earned a negative grade against the Giants. In eight games, Manning has targeted him 31 times, completing 15 of those passes for 22 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions, and a 43.4 passer rating. Against the Saints, Manning showed the type of chemistry with his receivers that carried the Giants through last year’s playoffs. This Sunday, he’ll have to tread lightly around Samuel or risk losing his ticket to this year’s postseason.
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