Many analysts, fans and random people around the internet assumed the Falcons couldn't pull off a win against the New York Giants on Sunday. Following a lackluster performance against the Carolina Panthers the previous week, the culmination of a few weeks of less-than-stellar performances, it was difficult to insist that the Falcons deserved respect for their record without acknowledging that they were dealing with some pretty serious weaknesses.
Atlanta's previous playoff failures are ever-present in the discussion of this year's team. As they prepared to take on the team that delivered last season's 24-2 playoff heartbreak, expectations were that Atlanta could not possibly handle the reigning champs.
It was fundamentally important that the offensive line effectively protect Matt Ryan against New York's pass rush, and did they ever. Ryan was sacked once, hit once, and hurried twice. What was most notable about Ryan's performance on Sunday, however, was his pocket presence. Ryan has looked flustered at times over the past few weeks, beginning with his five interception performance against the Arizona Cardinals. He definitely did not look flustered on Sunday against the Giants. Ryan looked like the quarterback who was the subject of so much MVP chatter early in the season, and it's an awfully good time for him to get back to form.
One thing that really stands out about Atlanta's offensive performance on Sunday is that they got everyone involved. They ran the ball effectively, and Michael Turner was the leading rusher with 52 yards, but Jason Snelling, Jacquizz Rodgers and Julio Jones all contributed. Harry Douglas was the leading receiver for the day with 83 yards on three receptions, and replicated Victor Cruz' salsa celebration on Atlanta's sideline. Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, Roddy White, Jacquizz Rodgers, Jason Snelling, Mike Cox and Michael Turner all got a piece of the receiving action as well. That's the kind of diverse offense we have expected out of this Falcons team, and it is not surprising that it was so successful.
While Atlanta's offense was excellent on Sunday, the defense deserves a lot of credit for getting in Eli Manning's head early and often. Asante Samuel set the tone for the day, intercepting a Manning pass intended for Hakeem Nicks on New York's second play of the game. The defense was able to apply consistent pressure to Manning. Kroy Biermann delivered the lone sack of the day, but the Falcons hit Eli three times, and hurried him eight times. The defense was particularly impressive on fourth downs, allowing the Giants to convert zero of their three attempts.
After last week's debacle in Carolina, Rodney Harrison insisted that nobody was scared to play Atlanta. If teams aren't a little bit concerned about coming into the Georgia Dome and playing the Falcons after Sunday's dominant victory, the first regular season shutout loss for the New York Giants since 1996, they aren't paying attention.