On the way to their current perch atop the NFC East, the Giants convincingly defeated two other first-place teams in the conference – San Francisco and Green Bay - by a combined 51 points.
They will have an opportunity to complete a sweep of the NFC leaders on Sunday, when they visit the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome. Atlanta not only sits atop the South, but the entire conference with an 11-2 record.
More importantly than hitting the division-leader trifecta, a victory would assure that the Giants will still be in first place when they return to New Jersey. They are 8-5, one game ahead of Dallas and Washington in the tight division race. The Cowboys host Pittsburgh and the Redskins visit Cleveland this weekend.
"I think we were all very much aware of the circumstances that we're in," coach Tom Coughlin said. "It certainly does sharpen your focus when you know that there isn't a whole lot of margin for error."
The game presents any number of challenges for the Giants. First and foremost is the fact that any team nine games over .500 is playing some good football. "(That is) a very good Atlanta team, a team that has the most wins in the NFC, tied for the most wins in professional football," Coughlin said.
The Falcons' quarterback, Matt Ryan, is third in the league in both completion percentage (67.7) and passing yards (3,932). He throws to Roddy White and Julio Jones, whose 140 catches and 2,137 yards are the most by any NFL wide receiver tandem this season. And then there's tight end Tony Gonzalez, whose team-high 81 catches has increased his career total to 1,230, the second-highest total in NFL history behind Jerry Rice's 1,549.
"They're a great offensive team," safety Antrel Rolle said. "They have a lot of great weapons. They have a lot of different combinations they can go to and we're just going to go out there and play our ball, play disciplined, fly around and play fast, play with a mean streak and get the job done."
That will be particularly difficult in the Georgia Dome, where the Falcons are 6-0 this season and own a 10-game winning streak dating back to last season. They seem to play faster under the roof, thanks in part to the deafening support they get from the home crowd. On the other hand, the Giants are 3-0 in that building, though their most recent triumph there was in 2007.
Atlanta will likely take the field in a surly mood. Last week the Falcons turned in arguably their poorest performance of the year, falling behind 23-0 on their way to a 30-20 loss to the 4-9 Carolina Panthers. Atlanta has already clinched the NFC South championship, but coach Mike Smith wants his team to start postseason play with some momentum.
The Falcons might also find extra motivation in their desire to avenge a 24-2 beating they absorbed from the Giants in last year's NFC Wild Card Game.
"They're going to be upset about it, but it doesn't matter," defensive end Osi Umenyiora said. "At the end of the day we have to win this game and I think it's more important to us than it is to them at this point. So we're just going to go out there and try and get it."
"I think it's definitely going to stick with them," Rolle said. "Those guys are going to come out, they're going to be hunting for us and as well we'll be hunting for them also. So it's going to be a good game. I'm looking forward to a great matchup come Sunday."
Of course, the memory of losing to the Giants in the 2011 playoffs didn't help the 49ers or Packers this season, so maybe revenge isn't all it's cracked up to be in the NFL.
Frankly, the Giants should have more inspiration in this game. They haven't clinched anything and a loss could severely crimp both their division title and playoff aspirations.
"These are fun," Eli Manning said of the high-stakes game. "This is what it's about. Late in the season, these games are important and they're big and we've got to make sure we continue to play good football and making our strides and getting better each week and have great preparation and get excited for these opportunities."
For the Giants to take advantage of this one, they must overcome injuries to some key players. The team today declared four players out of the game due to injuries: leading rusher Ahmad Bradshaw (sprained knee), cornerback Prince Amukamara (hamstring) and safeties Kenny Phillips (knee) and Tyler Sash (hamstring).
Bradshaw was hurt last week against New Orleans.
"It would have been a reach for him to be ready," Coughlin said. "With someone like that, his constitution, you have to give him every benefit of the doubt. I'm sure he'd be disappointed right now. He thinks come game day it's all going to straighten out for him. In this case, it's, medically, really the only wise move."
Two rookies will play key roles Sunday – first-round draft choice David Wilson will make his first NFL start for Bradshaw and third-round selection Jayron Hosley will step in for Amukamara. Coughlin said he expects Wilson to continue returning kickoffs, no surprise considering the young pro ran back four for 227 yards last week, including a 97-yard touchdown.
"As far as I'm concerned, he's going to stay there," Coughlin said. "How many he gets is another question. I'm not taking him out of that. Last week with the plus-49 yard line field position for the day, it was quite a bit different than the minus-15 the week before."
Wilson said he is prepared for the double duty.
"I did it in college and I did it last game, but I had a little bit of help with Ahmad," Wilson said. "I think the coaches can decipher if I took a long return and I'm out of breathe or anything then they'll know how to figure it out. But I'm in shape; I've been working out and going through all the processes and doing it in practice. So I think I should be fine."
*Aside from Wilson, the other running backs in uniform Sunday will be Kregg Lumpkin and Ryan Torain, both of whom were signed on November 27, after Andre Brown fractured his fibula.
"They've worked hard; they've worked very hard at it since they've been here," Coughlin said. "They have been in the classroom since they got here to catch up and they've done a pretty good job at it. They've been on (special) teams, so they know what to expect. Hopefully, if we can categorize how we use them, and their knowledge in that area is sufficient, they'll do fine."
*Linebacker Michael Boley was limited in practice today and is listed as questionable.
"I think he'll be fine," Coughlin said.
*Four players were listed as probable: wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (knee), tight end Travis Beckum (knee), center David Baas (shoulder) and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (back). Nicks was limited and the other three players practiced fully. Coughlin said Nicks improved as the week progressed.
"I feel good and I'm ready to play," said Nicks, who caught four passes, including a 25-yard touchdown, last week in a victory over New Orleans. "Big game. We need it. Focused on playing team ball and get the job done."
Moments later, Nicks, who has had a sore knee for most of the season, said, "I feel real good actually right now. This week… I had a good practice today, yesterday as well. The legs are feeling pretty good, so I'm looking forward to playing."
*The Giants-Falcons 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, in Giants Stadium. 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. They defeated the Falcons, 27-14, on Oct. 15, 2006 and 31-10 exactly a year later.
*The Giants are 28-16 in regular-season games played indoors, including 10-4 under Coughlin (plus 2-0 in Super Bowls). They are 3-0 in the Georgia Dome, winning in 2000, 2006 and 2007.