After waiting three years to get a taste of postseason play, the Giants are going to stay around and savor it for a while.
Using a smothering defense and an opportunistic, big-play offense, the Giants routed the Atlanta Falcons, 24-2, Sunday in an NFC Wild Card Game in MetLife Stadium. It was the Giants' first postseason victory since Super Bowl XLII and their first home playoff win since the 2000 NFC Championship Game triumph over Minnesota.
"It was great to have a home playoff game and have our fans involved as much as they were," Coach Tom Coughlin said. "Our players greatly appreciate that."
"It's special," running back Brandon Jacobs said. "I haven't won a playoff game here since I've been in the league. We played here twice, we played the Eagles and lost (in 2008) and we played Carolina one year and got shut out (2005). So this means a lot to play a playoff game here at home and win."
The fourth-seeded Giants, 10-7, advance to a divisional round game next week in Lambeau Field against the top-seeded Green Bay Packers, who had a bye this weekend after finishing the regular season 15-1. On Dec. 4, the Packers defeated the Giants here, 38-35, on a 31-yard field goal by Mason Crosby as time expired.
The Giants defeated the Packers in Green Bay in the 2007 NFC Championship Game, but lost there, 45-17, on Dec. 26, 2010.
Eli Manning set a career postseason high with three touchdown passes - four and 72 yards to Hakeem Nicks and 27 yards to Mario Manningham. The Giants also got a 22-yard field goal from Lawrence Tynes. Manning completed 23 of 32 passes for 277 yards. Jacobs ran for a career postseason high 92 yards – "I think Brandon Jacobs set the tone physically," Coughlin said. Ahmad Bradshaw added 63 as the Giants ran for 172 yards, 50 more than their previous high total this season.
Is the offense playing its best at the most important time of the season?
"I think it could be," Manning said. "Just a great mix of run and pass and I think guys have a great understanding of what our offense is, what their responsibilities are. We just have to keep grinding, keep getting better, and go with a great game plan next week and know we have to play great football."
As good as the offense was, the defense was even more dominant. The unit did not allow a point – the Falcons' only score, obviously, was on a safety. Atlanta rushed for only 64 yards, including 41 on 15 carries by Michael Turner, who ran for 1,340 yards in the regular season. The Giants stopped the Falcons on 10 of 14 third down attempts and all three of their fourth-down conversion tries, including a pair of fourth-and-one quarterback sneaks by Matt Ryan.
"Probably our best effort so far this year," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "I think the last three weeks - do or die games for us - we really came out and put things together, but it still feels like we can play better and we probably will have to next week going up to Green Bay."
"I think today we played outstanding defense and that set the tone for everything else that happened in the game," Coughlin said. "It was wonderful to see it and it has happened over the last two or three weeks of the season. If we can continue to play defense like that, we can make ourselves heard in this tournament."
The game began poorly for the Giants. They had only one first down on their first three possessions and punted all three times. Their fourth series – which began after the Giants stopped Ryan on fourth down - was worse. Manning was being tackled in the end zone by safety James Sanders when he threw the ball to the right side. The officials ruled that no receiver was in the vicinity and penalized Manning for intentional grounding – a safety in the end zone.
It was the first time a Giants opponent scored on a safety in a postseason game since Super Bowl XXV on Jan. 25, 1991, when Buffalo's Bruce Smith sacked Jeff Hostetler in the end zone. It was the second safety allowed by the Giants this season. On Oct. 9, Seattle's Anthony Hargrove tackled D.J. Ware in the end zone for two points.
After forcing the Falcons to punt following the free kick, the Giants put together one of their best drives of the season, a 13-play, 85-yarder that consumed 7:32, their longest touchdown possession of the year. The catalyzing play was Manning's 14-yard scramble on third-and-two.
"That was instrumental when he pulled that down because we were struggling to make a first down," Coughlin said. "He was able to clear that side of the field, get a first down and give us some momentum. The timing of the play was outstanding."
"We had a third down play-action," Manning said. "It was third-and-two right there and I kind of knew right away they had a pretty good coverage. We had all out-breaking routes and everybody was playing outside leverage. I did the play-action, I scooted up just trying to find a lane to see if maybe a guy won, and I just saw an opening. I had to get two yards so I just tucked it and ran it right there and got a first down and we hadn't had many, so that was a big play right there."
The Giants soon converted another third down opportunity on Manning's seven-yard pass to Ahmad Bradshaw. Two plays later, Jacobs ran for a postseason career-long 34 yards to give the Giants a first down at the Atlanta 15. Bradshaw gained nine yards on first down, but the Giants didn't pick up the first down until Jacobs bulled his way forward for two yards on fourth-and-one.
On first-and-goal, Manning faked a handoff to Bradshaw before firing a pass to the right side for Nicks, who leaped high over cornerback Dominique Franks for his first postseason touchdown with 2:47 remaining in the second quarter. Franks started in place of the injured Brent Grimes. The Giants' 7-2 lead held up until halftime.
"It was something we practice during the week and Eli knew he had to get it up over the linebackers with the play action pass," Nicks said. "Once he put it up, he put it in a place where only I could catch it and I went up and got it."
Tynes' short field goal increased the Giants' lead to 10-2 with 7:51 remaining in the third quarter. The Giants failed to take advantage of a first-and-goal at the five and had to settle for three points.
The field goal concluded an 11-play, 72-yard drive that included three big plays: Manning's 19-yard pass to Nicks on third-and-eight, a 22-yard pass to Cruz on third-and-two and, on the next snap, Bradshaw's career postseason-long 30-yard run to the five. Bradshaw gained a yard on first down before Manning passes to Jake Ballard and Nicks fell incomplete, forcing Coughlin to send the field goal team on the field.
Minutes, later, the offense and defense fittingly combined to put a stranglehold on the game. Atlanta drove from its own 21-yard line to the Giants' 21, where the Falcons faced a fourth-and-one. Coach Mike Smith again decided to go for it. Ryan again tried to gain a couple of feet by forcing his way up the middle. And the Giants again stopped him as Jason Pierre-Paul and Chase Blackburn were credited with the tackle.
"The two fourth down stops were just outstanding and both were in the shadow of the goal line as well," Coughlin said. "That really inspired everybody, to be honest with you. Those plays that our defense made really inspired everybody."
Suitably motivated, the offense needed only three plays to cover 79 yards and score the touchdown that put the Giants in a commanding position. On third-and-three from the 28, Manning threw over the middle to Nicks, who caught the ball at the 33, weaved through Franks and Thomas DeCoud and sprinted the rest of the way for a 72-yard score that is tied for the longest postseason play in Giants history. On Jan. 3, 1982, Scott Brunner threw a 72-yard pass to Earnest Gray. Manning's previous long postseason pass was a 52-yard touchdown to Amani Toomer in an NFC Divisional Playoff Game at Dallas on Jan. 13, 2008. It was Manning's fifth touchdown pass of more than 70 yards this season and the first caught by someone other than Victor Cruz.
The Giants added an insurance touchdown with 9:55 remaining in the game when Manningham got behind the Falcons secondary and caught Manning's third touchdown pass in the end zone for a 21-point advantage. Tynes later missed a 32-yard field goal attempt.
Fittingly, Atlanta's final offensive play resulted in Ryan being sacked for an eight-yard loss by Osi Umenyiora.
Now it's on to Green Bay, where the Giants won the 2007 NFC Championship Game in frigid Lambeau Field. The Giants will enter the game with confidence after taking the then-undefeated Packers down to the wire in their first meeting on December 4.
"They had a lot of yards and we had a lot of yards," Coughlin said. "It was a lot of points scored and our defense is hopefully better. When we go back and look at the tape and study what has happened over the last few weeks, hopefully we can do a little bit better job."
"We know they are a good team and we played them tough here," Manning said. "We did some good things offensively, scored some points, and our defense is playing great football right now so hopefully they can continue to do that, but we know offensively we are going to have to play strong. We are going to have to play good, we are going to have to go score some points, we can't make mistakes and hopefully get off to a faster start than we did today."
If they do, they just might be able to savor this postseason experience a while longer.
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