The Giants (9-7) will be the novices today when they play host to the Falcons (10-6) in an NFC wild-card game at MetLife Stadium.
New York is returning to the postseason after a two-year absence that put coach Tom Coughlin’s job in jeopardy, while the Falcons will be appearing in the playoffs for the second consecutive year and third time in four seasons.
The Falcons’ experience might not mean much, considering quarterback Matt Ryan has failed to lead the team to a win. The Falcons were the conference’s No. 1 seed for the playoffs last year, and were blown out by the eventual Super Bowl champion Packers in the NFC semifinals.
“Yeah, it’s about time we won,” Falcons receiver Roddy White said. “This is our third time in the playoffs in four years. It’s about time we get a W. We’ve been lacking in that case and everyone wants to win really, really bad. We want to get that first win out of the way and after that you just take them one by one.”
Eli Manning and the Giants enter the playoffs with momentum after an inconsistent season. They have won three of four, beating Dallas on the final weekend of the regular season to win the NFC East title.
The late run has many making comparisons to the 2007 title sprint. New York gained confidence late by pushing then-undefeated New England in the last game of the season and rode it to four consecutive playoff road wins, capped by the upset of Tom Brady and the Patriots in the championship game.
The other similarity is the Giants’ pass rush has gone to another level, recording 11 sacks in the past two games.
Manning, who was the Super Bowl MVP, agrees some of the core group is left from the franchise’s third championship team.
“That’s probably all we want to get into at that point,” said Manning, who threw for a career-best 4,933 yards this season. “We have a lot of guys that weren’t there. We have a lot of guys on this team that haven’t been in the playoffs before. It’s a new year. We have different players. It’s a new team. It’s a new environment. We know what’s ahead of us and we can’t start looking too far up there. We have Atlanta this week. We’re just getting ready to play this game and go out there and have a great game plan and play our best.”
The defensive key for the Giants will be slowing running back Michael Turner, who rushed for 1,340 yards. If the Falcons can run the ball, that will neutralize All-Pro Jason Pierre-Paul and the rest of New York’s fierce pass rush and allow Ryan to attack a secondary that has given up 4,082 yards passing.
White is Ryan’s top target, catching an NFC-leading 100 passes for 1,296 yards and eight touchdowns. Rookie Julio Jones is the deep threat with eight TDs, while Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez had another outstanding season with 80 catches.
“I think we match up pretty well,” White said. “They’ve given up 71 explosive plays, so we’ve got to go up there and get some. That’s what we’re looking to do and exploit those guys in different aspects with mismatches.”
While ranked last in the NFL rushing, the Giants’ running game has shown progress the past month, posting 100-yard games in their three wins.
If Atlanta and its speedy defense can shut down running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, it will be up to Manning to make things happen. He likely will look to Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, who combined for 16 TD receptions. Cruz had a team-record 1,536 yards receiving, while Nicks had 1,192.
Tight end Jake Ballard also is expected back in the lineup after missing two games with a knee injury.
Defensive end John Abraham said the Falcons need to get pressure on Manning.
“He’s a smart guy,” Abraham said. “He does a great job with his play-action fakes and getting the ball out quick. In order for us to have a good day, we’ll have to get in his face and get him to move out of the pocket.”
Manning has taken the Giants to the playoffs four times (2005-08) since taking over as the starter. The only season he won playoffs games was 2007, when the Giants went all the way.
Ryan, who threw for a career-best 4,177 yards and 29 touchdowns, still has the stigma of failing to win in the postseason.
“To be honest with you I don’t spend a lot of time evaluating myself against other quarterbacks,” Ryan said. “Most of my time is spent trying to prepare myself to play against them. With that said, when you think about a guy like Eli, certainly some of those plays he’s made in the postseason factor into your thinking. I think he’s a really, really good quarterback, one of the best in the league, and he’s had a great year.”
Gonzalez is winless in four playoffs games with the Falcons and Chiefs.
“It would mean a lot to me, but at the same time, that’s not our goal,” he said. “After the game if we’re fortunate to win, don’t expect me to be elated. Ask me after the Super Bowl. That’s where I’ll be truly excited. The goal is not to win a playoff game; it’s about winning a couple of playoff games.”
The Giants feel the same away after putting together a 6-2 start this season, then losing four in a row and clawing their way back to the playoffs.
“We have been through a lot and weathered every storm that has been there,” said defensive end Osi Umenyiora, who had two sacks last week in his first game since being sidelined with an ankle injury in late November. “There has been adversity and ups and downs that we have had. To be playing the way we are playing right now and at the right time will give us a lot of confidence.”
The 65-year-old Coughlin is enjoying the postseason return.
“This is something special,” he said. “This is the second season. There are only 12 teams involved in the tournament. So I like it to be upbeat, uptick, I like it to be an exciting week. I like the guys to be excited and emotional. I like to see a real energetic practice. I like the sense that this is what, in fact, you play 16 games for – to get to this point and be able to play, hopefully, many more games – four more, anyway.”
It’s a feeling the Falcons would like to experience.