EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Giants’ daunting late-season schedule will present them with another challenge Sunday when they visit the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome. The Falcons lost last week at Carolina, 30-20, but still own the NFC’s best record at 11-2, including 6-0 at home, where they have won 10 in a row dating back to last season. The Giants are 8-5 after their 52-27 romp past the New Orleans Saints. They lead the NFC East by a game over Dallas and Washington. The teams last met on January 8, when the Giants defeated Atlanta, 24-2, in an NFC Wild Card Game, in the teams’ first-ever postseason meeting. The regular-season series is tied, 10-10. They last met in the regular season on Nov. 22, 2009, when the Giants won in overtime, 34-31. Prior to that Giants triumph, the visiting team had won the previous 12 games in the series dating back to 1981, the longest such streak in NFL history. The Giants have won their last seven games in Atlanta, where they are 8-3 overall, including 3-0 in the Georgia Dome.
The Falcons are ranked eighth in the NFL in both yards (376.2) and points per game (25.9). They are fourth in the league in passing yardage (289.2 per game) but 28th in rushing (86.9). Atlanta is third in the NFL in third-down conversion percentage (44.6, 74 of 166), has a plus-six turnover differential and is tied with Denver with a league-high 51 trips inside the opposition 20-yard line. The Falcons have scored 30 touchdowns in the red zone, a 58.8 percent rate that is tied for seventh in the NFL.
The Falcons’ strength of schedule is the league’s lowest. They are by far the league’s least-penalized team, with just 47 accepted infractions (the Giants are second with 63). Under new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, the Falcons have scored an NFL-high 44 opening-possession points. They have a potent, quick-strike offense that has scored 49 points on drives of four plays or less. Atlanta is 42-2 when leading at halftime under coach Mike Smith.
Quarterback Matt Ryan is 32-4 in the dome, with three of those losses to New Orleans. He is 30-1 when his passer rating is higher than 100.0. A 2010 Pro Bowler, Ryan is third in the NFL in complete percentage (67.7) and passing yards (3,932). But he has thrown 14 interceptions, including eight in the last six games. Ryan is a good decision-maker with a quick release and impressive arm strength. He is accurate throwing to all levels. His backup is Luke McCown.
Ryan throws to one of the league’s best group of receivers. Roddy White (77 catches for 1,140 yards and five touchdowns) and Julio Jones (63-997-7) lead all NFL wide receiver tandems in receptions and yards (140 for 2,137 yards). White was selected to each of the last four Pro Bowls and now has six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. He can play all the wideout positions, is a terrific route-runner, has good deep speed and gains chunks of yardage after escaping the initial contact from a defender. Jones is averaging a team-high 15.8 yards per reception. He is a big, strong, physical receiver who eats up ground quickly with his scary yards-after-catch speed. The third receiver is Harry Douglas, who lines up in the slot and has good instincts and hands. Drew Davis gets a few snaps a game.
Tight end Tony Gonzalez is a 16-year veteran and a 12-time Pro Bowler who is second in NFL history with 1,230 receptions – including a team-high 81 this season. Seven of his 11 red zone catches have been touchdowns. Gonzalez lines up all over the formation and has a great feel for the passing game. He locates voids in zone defenses, his experience helps him set up and beat defenders and his strong hands enable him to catch anything thrown his way. Backup Michael Palmer has averaged about 14 snaps a game and is a solid receiver. Chase Coffman also contributes.
Michael Turner leads the team with 689 rushing yards, but his workload has decreased in recent games as Smith tries to keep him fresh for the playoffs. Turner is a strong, patient runner who is a load to tackle. He is particularly effective in short-yardage and goal line situations and he has eight of the Falcons’ 10 rushing touchdowns. Jacquizz Rodgers has picked up most of the snaps Turner has lost. He has rushed for 295 yards and caught 43 passes. A tough 5-7 runner, Rodgers is a quick and explosive back who can dart through traffic. Jason Snelling plays both running back and fullback and is more productive as a receiver than a ballcarrier. He is a trusted third-down target for Ryan. Mike Cox, who was re-signed on November 7, is an old-school fullback who quickly locates his target when blocking and hits him hard.
The Falcons’ offensive line is the fourth-oldest in the NFL and has a new offensive line coach in Pat Hill, the former head coach at Fresno State. His best player this season is left guard Justin Blalock, who has performed at a Pro Bowl level. He has made 82 consecutive starts and has not missed a snap since 2007. Blalock has natural power and strength and he consistently clamps down on defensive linemen. Left tackle Sam Baker is a former first-round draft choice who is a smart, technically-sound player with quick hands. Right tackle Tyson Clabo is a 6-6, 329-pounder who can steer his opponent out of the play when the Falcons run the ball. Rookie Peter Konz has been the starting right guard since Week 8, when Garrett Reynolds was placed on injured reserve. He is a rapidly-improving player with long arms and competitiveness. Center Todd McClure is a 14-year veteran who is still playing at a high level.
The Falcons are 20th in the NFL in yards allowed at 361.9 a game, but a far more impressive fifth in scoring defense (19.9 points game). They are tied for 23rd defending the run (127.0 yards a game) and are 16thagainst the pass (234.9). The Falcons have been hurt at times by missed tackles, a problem that was particularly acute last week in the loss to the Panthers.
Atlanta’s new defensive coordinator this year is Mike Nolan, who held the same position with the Giants under Dan Reeves from 1993-96. His unit has committed only 16 penalties in 13 games. Right end John Abraham is a four-time Pro Bowler and one of the best pass-rushers of his era. He leads all active players with 122.0 career sacks, including a team-high 10.0 this season. Abraham is an explosive player with a quick finishing burst. He is strong turning the corner and still has impressive straight-line speed, making him Atlanta’s No. 1 threat to the quarterback. Jonathan Babineaux became the starting left end when the Falcons released Ray Edwards. He is a high-motor athlete with good foot quickness who moves inside in sub packages. Corey Peters, a point of attack brawler, has started the last five games at nose tackle. He has the power to get to the quarterback up the middle. Tackle Kroy Biermann leads Atlanta’s defensive linemen with 48 tackles. He is a relentless pass rusher who has the speed and smarts to drop into coverage when called upon. Former starter Peria Jerry is an undersized tackle who is playing less often. His quickness at the snap can be a problem for offensive linemen. Vance Walker is a heavy-bodied defender who is a strong point of attack anchor. Cliff Matthews is a rookie seventh-round draft choice who has worked his way into the rotation the last four weeks. Another first-year player, Travian Robertson also gets some snaps.Akeem Dent is the starting middle linebacker this season after impressing the coaches with 19 special teams tackles last year. He is a downhillplayer who is quick to insert into the run game. Stephen Nicholas is a tough strongside linebacker who disrupts the opponent’s run game and has a knack for raising his hands and deflecting passes. Weakside backer Sean Weatherspoon is an every-down player with speed, agility and superb athleticism. He makes all the huddle calls and is Atlanta’s best cover linebacker, with the ability to stay with backs and tight ends in man-to-man coverage. Weatherspoon has 3.0 sacks and five tackles for losses despite missing three games. Mike Peterson is a 14-year veteran who can back up all three linebacker positions. Robert James contributes a lot of energy when he is on the field.
The secondary is the strength of the Falcons’ defense. William Moore and Thomas DeCoud arguably form the NFL’s best safety tandem. Moore leads the team with 105 tackles (71 solo) and they have combined for nine interceptions; Atlanta is the only team in the league that has two safeties with at least four picks each. Moore didn’t play last week because of a hamstring injury. When he’s on the field Moore plays with a mean streak. He instinctively reads the quarterback, takes excellent angles in pursuit and is one of the league’s best tacklers. DeCoud is a good communicator in the back of the defense who has become a more aggressive and dependable defender this season. Chris Hope is a smart and experienced third safety who started last week for Moore (who did not practice Wednesday or Thursday). Cornerback Asante Samuel is familiar to the Giants from his tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles. A four-time Pro Bowler, he still excels at baiting a quarterback into mistakes and is not shy about taking risks. He hurt his shoulder against Arizona on November 18 and last week he dressed but did not play vs. the Panthers. Dunta Robinson is a physical corner who quickly breaks on the ball and has good anticipation when playing in a zone. He is an outstanding tackler after a receiver catches a pass or in the run game. Robert McClain is the third cornerback and has made four starts, including last week for Samuel. If Samuel again sits out, Chris Owens will play corner in the nickel, with McClain moving inside to cover the slot receiver. McClain has good anticipation and is particularly adept at snuffing out screen passes. Owens plays the ball well when it is in the air and is strong in run support.
Matt Bosher handles the punting, kickoff and holding duties. He is ninth in the league in gross punting average (47.4 yards) and eighth in net yards (41.4). Bosher often kicks the ball exceptionally high and has good directional punting ability. Former Giant Matt Bryant has made 29 of 34 field goal attempts this season, including all four from 51 yards and longer. Rodgers did not return kickoffs at Oregon State, but he has a 26.9-yard average on 18 runbacks this season. He is a good one-cut and go returner. Punt returner Dominique Franks has a quick first step and is a fluid runner. Hope leads the team with 10 special teams tackles.