This game is running up on us in a hurry.
I don't have to consult my thesaurus for different ways to say important at this point in the season, because it's the playoffs. Every game is a life-and-death struggle to advance to the Super Bowl. If the Falcons and their fans can't get amped for this—and Rob Parker would like to take this chance to fire a flare into the sky and scream about how they won't—then they never will.
For the Falcons, this is also an opportunity to get their first win of the Mike Smith era.
On paper, this is a fairly even matchup between two hungry teams who did a bit of season-long underachieving. It ought to be a great one.
After the jump, the breakdown. Please note that all rankings are traditional NFL yardage rankings, but we'll then be going a little deeper than that.
Falcons Rank: 8th
This has been a pretty good passing season for young Matt Ryan and his merry band of pass catchers. He topped 4,000 yards for the first time in his career, finding Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez all over the field.
If not for early season struggles, this team would be even higher ranked. Ryan's been on a true tear over the last six weeks, throwing for 10 touchdowns against no interceptions.A lot of that has to do with the fact that Jones has been playing absolutely insane football during most of that span, catching balls while triple covered and being hogtied by men with automatic weapons.
This is a critical area for the Falcons. If they can keep Matt Ryan upright—and make no mistake, it'll be a challenge—they should be able to connect against an average group of cornerbacks and linebackers who struggle in coverage. You're not going to beat these Giants without some big passing plays.
Giants Rank: 5th
This is probably the finest season of Eli Manning's career. He threw for about 4,900 yards and got great contributions out of players like Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and tight end Jake Ballard.
Manning is entering a higher strata. Without a real run game for long stretches of the season, he was able to put the team on his narrow shoulders and carry them to victory. A bad Manning game is still a horror show for Giants fans, but when he's good, he's great.
The key with Manning is not just pressuring him, because he holds up well under pressure. It's hitting him, forcing him to go down or chucking up a floater that the Falcons can pick off. They also need very strong games out of their coverage units to buy the pass rush a precious second or two more to hit Manning. If they can do that, they can stop this attack in its tracks.
If they can't do that, Manning is going to eat them alive.
Falcons Rank: 17th
You could be forgiven for thinking that this wasn't the finest year for Atlanta Falcons rushing. You could be forgiven because it wasn't.
Michael Turner's groin injury is becoming an annual thing. The run blocking is less than fantastic. Mike Mularkey sometimes calls for plays that actually send the running back backwards, because defenses surely won't expect that.
That said, Turner remains a tough runner capable of having a big game. Jacquizz Rodgers has considerable potential as the lightning to Turner's thunder. And Jason Snelling runs like a bull.
The Falcons won't necessarily need a 100 yard game from Turner to win this, especially if the passing game is firing on all cylinders. But they'll need a game effort, a few good runs and some semblance of balance. Hopefully Turner's as healthy as he looked last week.
Giants Rank: 32nd
There's considerable talent here, but injuries, poor line play and the mysterious whims of the cosmos have made it one of the worst attacks in the NFL.
That doesn't mean the Falcons can afford to underestimate it. Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs are both tough runners. Jacobs is particularly dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield, because of his size and strength, but Bradshaw is very elusive and tough to bring down. If the Falcons allow either to get into the open field, there's going to be legitimate problems.
The good news is that the Giants' offensive line is not spectacular at run-blocking, and the Falcons have had one of the best run defenses in the NFL. More on that in a moment. This is the Giants' offensive weakness, and the Falcons must take advantage of that.
Falcons Rank: 20th
The Falcons are probably right about where they should be with this ranking.
Brent Grimes is an elite cornerback, but Dunta Robinson is not. Dominique Franks and Chris Owens are young and still growing as defenders. They're not helped by a less-than-excellent pass rush.
The Falcons will rely heavily on their corners to staunch any bleeding. Even if John Abraham and his friends generate an incredible pass rush--seems slightly unlikely--they can't possibly slow down Manning on every play. If Dominique Franks and Brent Grimes can combine to slow down Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, this team will be in good shape.
It's a dicey matchup, either way.
Giants Rank: 29th
For a team with a superb pass rush, the Giants' pass defense really isn't all that spectacular.
They've allowed the fourth most yards in the NFL and the team is tied for seventh most touchdowns allowed. Safety Kenny Phillips is talented and the linebackers are improving, but this is a unit that has trouble covering talented receivers and tight ends. Period.
The pass rush is what makes the difference here. If the Giants are able to swarm the backfield and force Matt Ryan to make throws under pressure, it masks any weaknesses in their pass defense. The Falcons will want to protect Ryan and give him a chance to throw to Tony Gonzalez and Julio Jones, because they are more than a match for Aaron Ross and Michael Boley.
Again, Ryan will need time. The line will have to step up in a big way or risk losing this one for the Falcons.
Falcons Rank: 6th
This is the single most favorable matchup for the Falcons. The Giants ground game is pretty poor, as we noted above, and the Falcons have stopped the run all year long.
Obviously, I don't want to underestimate Jacobs and Bradshaw. Both are capable of having good games and causing significant problems. But with the Falcons' front seven being as potent as it is and with William Moore and Thomas DeCoud being a big help in run support, there's no reason to believe the Falcons can't hold them in check.
Giants Rank: 19th
The Giants don't have a spectacular run defense, but there's a lot of talent up front. That's true of their defensive line, which features guys like Justin Tuck, and their linebacking corps, which features former Falcoholic favorite Michael Boley.
This won't be an incredibly easy matchup for Michael Turner, who remains banged up. The Falcons' best move is to run right at Osi Umenyiora whenever possible, since Giants fans assure me that he's horrible in run support. But generally speaking, a commitment to the run and a willingness to get Jacquizz Rodgers involved should assure the Falcons a decent game.
The Falcons' return game is decent, at best. Eric Weems has had an okay year after making the Pro Bowl the year before. He's been better over the last several weeks, but Weems remains an inconsistent weapon.
Matt Bosher is ranked just 30th in the NFL in punting average, but that's largely because of his early-season struggles. Bosher has been lights out over the last several weeks, averaging 50 yards a punt and regularly pinning opponents inside the 20. Hopefully the Falcons won't have to use him often, but if they do, at least he's reliable.
Matt Bryant is money. You know that.
The Giants are leaning on speedy Da'Rael Scott in the return game. He's a talented kid, but he hasn't broken any special teams touchdowns thus far in 2011. The Falcons will need to tackle well on special teams, of course, but he's containable.
Steve Weatherford is a solid punter. He's 15th in the NFL in punting average and shouldn't hurt the Giants at all. He's no Jeff Feagles, but then again, who is?
Lawrence Tynes has a big leg, but he's connected on just 79% of his field goals. The Falcons don't want to put him in the position to kick a long game winner or anything, but he's no Money Matt Bryant.
Prediction: Falcons 27, Giants 24