NFL Preview - Atlanta (5-4) at N.Y. Giants (5-4)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - While the New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons aren't likely viewing their upcoming matchup as a virtual elimination game, the loser of this Sunday's showdown at the Meadowlands figures to have an uphill climb in its quest to advance to the postseason.
Both of these 2008 playoff participants currently sport 5-4 records and are among a four-team group currently atop the standings in the battle for the NFC's two Wild Card spots. Each is also on much shakier footing in regards to its postseason prospects than a month ago, with the two contenders having stumbled noticeably following strong starts.
The Giants opened the season on a rousing five-game win streak against a rather suspect early schedule, but the defending NFC East champs have since dropped four in a row prior to a much-needed Week 10 bye. It's New York's longest skid since a string of four straight setbacks from November 12- December 3 of an 8-8 campaign in 2006.
The latest of those defeats may have stung the most. Holding a three-point lead on San Diego with under 3 1/2 minutes left, the Giants were forced to kick a field goal after failing to convert a 1st-and-goal opportunity, then left enough time for Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers to drive his team downfield for a last-second touchdown that gave the Bolts a startling 21-20 win on November 8.
New York, which trails rival Dallas by only a single game for first place in the NFC East in spite of its recent troubles, last lost five consecutive contests back in 2004, the rookie year of quarterback Eli Manning and the Giants' first season under head coach Tom Coughlin.
Atlanta won four of its first five tests of 2009 but enters Sunday's key clash having lost three times in a four-game span. That rough stretch may have the Falcons resigned to competing solely for a second straight Wild Card berth, as the team now stands four games behind still-unbeaten New Orleans in the NFC South race after coming out on the short end of a 28-19 decision at fellow division member Carolina last Sunday.
That loss was made even more painful by an injury to running back and 2008 Pro Bowl honoree Michael Turner, who suffered a high ankle sprain in the second quarter that will keep him out of action for a minimum of one week. Atlanta fell to 1-4 on the road for the season and has lost its last three games in opposing venues, but will have one interesting trend working in its favor on Sunday. The visiting team has won the last 12 installments of this series dating back to a 24-3 New York triumph at Giants Stadium on November 11, 1979.
The Falcons lead the all-time series with the Giants, 10-9, but Big Blue has won the last two meetings in the series, both at the Georgia Dome. New York was a 31-10 winner in a Monday night tilt from Atlanta in 2007, and also took a 27-14 decision at the Falcons in 2006. Prior to that game, Atlanta had won three in a row in the series, including a 14-10 victory in their last visit to the Giants in 2004. The Giants are 0-5 in home games against the Falcons since last beating them at the Meadowlands in 1979.
Coughlin is 4-1 in his career against the Falcons, including 2-0 since coming to New York in 2004. Atlanta's Mike Smith will be meeting both Coughlin and the Giants for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
The anticipated absence of Turner (831 rushing yards, 10 TD, 5 receptions) is a significant blow to an Atlanta offense that's gotten erratic play out of young quarterback Matt Ryan (2008 passing yards, 14 TD, 12 INT) lately. Turner had helped offset his teammate's struggles under center by ripping off 100- yard games in each of the past three weeks, including a 111-yard effort on only nine rushes before getting hurt against the Panthers. Jason Snelling (183 rushing yards, 14 receptions, 2 total TD) had 61 yards on 18 attempts in relief last Sunday and is a capable inside runner and receiver who's favored to get the bulk of the ball-carrying duties this weekend, and the Falcons are hoping speedster Jerious Norwood (78 rushing yards, 8 receptions) will be able to return from a hip flexor injury that sidelined him for four straight outings and lend support. Ryan might appreciate the help, considering the reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year has been intercepted twice or more in four of the last five games and completed less than 55 percent of his throws over that span. The slumping sophomore does have two tremendous weapons to work with in dangerous wide receiver Roddy White (47 receptions, 668 yards, 6 TD) and perennial All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez (44 receptions, 4 TD).
Ryan will be taking on a Giants defense that's surrendered the second-fewest passing yards in the league (168.4 ypg) this season, but also has been lit up by some quality quarterbacks in recent weeks. New Orleans' Drew Brees torched the unit for 369 yards and four scores in the first of New York's four straight losses, while Rivers and Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb each tossed three scoring strikes in the G-Men's last two games. A sporadic pass rush offers one explanation for those woes, although end Osi Umenyiora (19 tackles, 5 sacks) has delivered a sack and forced fumble in back-to-back tests, as has injuries to a secondary that is finally expected to have cornerback Aaron Ross, a starter in each of the previous two years, make his 2009 debut this weekend. The former first-round pick has been out since the preseason because of a lingering hamstring issue. The Giants have also been inconsistent in stopping the run as of late, having permitted 180 rushing yards in a Week 8 loss to the Eagles before limiting San Diego to a mere 34 yards on the ground the following Sunday. The return of outside linebacker Michael Boley (21 tackles), an ex-Falcon who missed over a month due to knee surgery, seemed to bolster that area, as the offseason addition posted seven solo stops versus the Chargers. New York does lead the NFL in third-down defense, with opponents successful on only 31.1 percent of such tries.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
New York topped the league in rushing offense en route to a 12-win season in 2008 and has been showing signs of returning to that level over the past few weeks. Powerful back Brandon Jacobs (617 rushing yards, 2 TD, 10 receptions) is averaging better than five yards per carry through the team's last three games while working in tandem with third-year pro Ahmad Bradshaw (515 rushing yards, 4 TD, 10 receptions), who's been bothered by a cracked bone in his foot lately and could cede touches to seldom-used third-stringer Danny Ware. Manning (2070 passing yards, 15 TD, 8 INT) has also had to deal with a foot issue that's possibly affected his midseason performance, but the former No. 1 overall pick rebounded with a solid 25-of-33, 215-yard, two-touchdown showing in the San Diego game. He'll often be looking in the direction of Steve Smith (61 receptions, 719 yards, 6 TD), the headliner of a young receiving corps that's also received contributions from second-year man Mario Manningham (34 receptions, 4 TD) and rookie Hakeem Nicks (23 receptions, 4 TD). Tight end Kevin Boss (19 receptions, 2 TD) is beginning to make an impact as well, having hauled in a touchdown pass in back-to-back games. The Giants currently stand fifth overall in total offense (377.7 ypg).
Look for the Giants to try to test an Atlanta run defense that ranks just 26th in the NFL (130.3 ypg) and allowed Carolina's backfield duo of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to put up a combined 174 yards and two scores a week ago. The Falcons have also had their problems against the pass, particularly since Brian Williams, the team's most experienced cornerback, sustained a season-ending ACL tear in Week 6, and will need three-time Pro Bowl end John Abraham (21 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and tackle Jonathan Babineaux (26 tackles, 4 sacks) to generate consistent pressure on Sunday to protect a suspect secondary that's given up over 240 yards per game (28th overall) through the air. Babineaux recorded a career-best 2 1/2 sacks of Washington's Jason Campbell in a win over the Redskins two weeks back. Veteran strong safety Erik Coleman (75 tackles, 2 forced fumbles) finished with 10 tackles versus the Panthers last weekend, and he and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton (90 tackles, 2 forced fumbles) have been kept busy chasing down enemy backs throughout the season. Opponents have converted a notable 48.8 percent of third-down chances on the Falcons, the second-highest success rate in the league.
Turner's injury has made Snelling a hot commodity on the waiver wire this past week, and the converted fullback merits consideration as a second rusher or flex player as the Falcons' likely top backfield option this week. Atlanta will still have two every-week fantasy starters on the field in White and Gonzalez, but Ryan's recent tribulations make the cerebral youngster a risky play in anything other than two-quarterback leagues. Manning has more upside thanks to a juicy matchup with a shaky Atlanta pass defense, although Steve Smith is the only Giants' receiver that can be labeled a must-start. Manningham, Nicks and tight end Boss all have value, but keep in mind that all three have had somewhat inconsistent production. Jacobs owners have been waiting for a monster game out of the bulky back all year long, and this could finally be the week he breaks through. The Giants have struggled to score touchdowns in the red zone, which gives kicker Lawrence Tynes and his league- high-tying 19 field goals a thumbs-up.
Even though the Giants' play has clearly tailed off following their sizzling start and the team hasn't historically fared well coming off a bye week, the Falcons' woes over the past month may be even more troubling. With Ryan turning the ball over at a concerning rate and a defense that hasn't been able to stop anybody, there's reason to believe the bloom may be coming off the rose of the NFL's feel-good story of 2008. A healthy Turner would have boosted Atlanta's chances for pulling off a rare road victory over a formidable opponent, but there's next to no chance that the factor back will be suiting up on Sunday. Well-rested and hungry to end a long winless drought, look for New York to get back to basics and show a glimpse of resembling the team that many had stamped a serious Super Bowl contender in September.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Giants 26, Falcons 17
11/19 16:51:28 ET