The Giants can't avoid opponents named Ryan.
Two weeks ago it was Rex Ryan. The Giants beat him and his Jets. Last week it was Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. The Giants defeated the Cowboys to win the NFC East.
On Sunday, the 9-7 Giants will face their most formidable Ryan yet, when they host quarterback Matt Ryan and the 10-6 Atlanta Falcons in an NFC Wild Card Game in MetLife Stadium. If the Giants are to advance to the divisional round, they will have to defuse Ryan and his array of weapons on the Falcons' offense, including running back Michael Turner, wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones and the most prolific tight end in NFL history, Tony Gonzalez.
"(They are) a very, very good and talented team," Coach Tom Coughlin said. "Of course, Matt Ryan (is) an outstanding young player in his own right."
The Giants have their own impressive collection of ball handlers, notably quarterback Eli Manning, running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs and wide receivers Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. They are expected to add another key player to the arsenal with the return of tight end Jake Ballard, who missed the final two regular season games with a sprained knee.
Both defenses are playing well. The Falcons go eight deep on the defensive line, have a pair of linebackers in Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon who were credited with a combined 284 tackles this season and an underrated safety in William Moore, who delights in delivering a crushing blow.
The Giants counter with arguably the NFL's best defensive front, led by Pro Bowler Jason Pierre-Paul; the versatile Mathias Kiwanuka; a veteran secondary; and a unit that held Dallas to only 14 points in the division championship game last week. The defense held Dallas to 49 rushing yards last week had 11 quarterback sacks in the final two games.
That's a round-about way of saying the Giants and Falcons appear to be two very evenly matched teams. Which means the game could well come down to the play of the quarterbacks, Manning and Ryan.
Both players threw for career-high passing yardage totals this season, Manning with 4,933, Ryan with 4,177. Their combined passing yards (9,110) will be the second-most in NFL history by opposing starting quarterbacks in a playoff game. The record of 10,514 combined passing yards by two starting quarterbacks in a postseason game will be set tomorrow night, when New Orleans' Drew Brees (5,476) and Detroit's Matt Stafford (5,038) square off.
Although they entered the NFL four years apart, Manning and Ryan have several similarities. Manning was the first overall selection of the 2004 draft, Ryan the third choice in 2008. Each has thrown for more than 3,000 in every full season in which they've played. Manning has thrown 3,921 passes for 27,579 yards, a per-attempt average of 7.0. Ryan has thrown 2,022 passes for 14,238 yards, a per-attempt average of 7.0.
The most significant difference is in postseason experience – and success. While Manning's Giants have been one-and-done in the playoffs three times, he led the Giants on their four-game run to victory in Super Bowl XLII four years ago. Manning completed 60.5 percent of his passes, threw for six touchdowns and only one interception and had a passer rating of 123.2 that postseason.
Ryan is 0-2 in the postseason with three touchdowns, four interceptions and a passer rating of 71.2. The Falcons lost a wild card game to Antrel Rolle's Arizona Cardinals in 2008 and a divisional playoff game last year, when they were the NFC's top seed but lost at home to eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay, 48-21.
One of the storylines in Atlanta this week has been that Ryan needs a playoff victory to solidify his standing as one of the NFL's best young quarterbacks. Not surprisingly, Ryan has tried to deflect both the attention and the pressure.
"It is the first opportunity that I have and we have as a team this postseason," Ryan said on a conference call this week. "We are excited about that. All the stuff that happened in the past doesn't really make a difference. It comes down to preparing this week and doing whatever we can to keep advancing throughout the playoffs."
Playoff success or not, Coughlin has a high regard for Ryan's ability.
"He's a very good quarterback," Coughlin said. "From the first moment he was in this league he performed well and played well. They've done a lot with their run game, but they've also done an awful lot with their pass game and he's had the ability to perform under pressure and do well. He does have some mobility. We're aware of that as well."
Manning had his finest season when the Giants needed him to be at his best. The team's rushing attack sputtered much of the season and finished last in the NFL for the first time in 58 years with an average of 89.2 yards a game. But they won the NFC East largely because Manning was terrific. In addition to his yardage total, he set career highs and franchise records in passes thrown (589) and completions (359), while throwing 29 touchdown passes against only 16 interceptions. His teammates and coaches believe Manning can again lead them to the promised land that is the Super Bowl.
Asked if Manning is up to the challenge of carrying the team in the postseason, Coach Tom Coughlin said, "Without a doubt he's up to that challenge or any challenge."
Manning insists he need not be the main character in the Giants' story.
"I think that's the point of a team," Manning said. "It's everybody doing their jobs, it's everybody leaning on each other and expecting the guy next to you to do their job. That's the way we feel. Our defense is playing outstanding lately. Hopefully they continue to do that. Offensively, the run game is coming around. We've run better in the last half of the season than we did at the beginning. The receivers are back healthy and doing a good job of getting open. When we play our best it's when all three phases of the game – offense, defense, special teams – they're all playing at a high level.
"I think quarterbacks, players, everybody – their confidence level is always high. You always go into a game feeling good about what's going to happen, what to expect. A lot of it is having confidence in the players around you. That's what we have. I'm confident in the receivers we have, with the offensive line, the running backs, everybody knows their assignment and they're going to go out there and play at a high level and let me play at my best also."
Manning and Ryan faced each other once previously. On Nov. 22, 2009 in Giants Stadium, Manning led the Giants to a 34-31 overtime victory over the Falcons. Manning completed 25 passes for 384 yards – then his career-high – three touchdowns and an interception. Ryan completed 26 passes for 268 yards, two touchdowns and no picks.
Four members of the Giants – Chris Snee, Mathias Kiwanuka, Will Blackmon and Mark Herzlich – were teammates of Ryan's at Boston College. As the defensive players studied him this week, they saw the same qualities that made him a success in college.
"He was just a winner," said Herzlich, who will miss the game with an ankle injury. "The type of thing that he would make some plays at BC where he bought himself time and made a hell of a throw and that's the type of stuff he is doing now. We watched one play in the film room today where a back went out, he rolled out to his right, and threw a deep pass to the left and that was the exact play we ran against Virginia Tech to win the game. I saw that and I was like, 'I know that play.' So he can still do it, obviously."
"He has a very similar style, he was very well-coached and very disciplined in his preparation," said Blackmon. "You can't really do too much of who you are at the start, but obviously he's wiser since being in the NFL because the game is different. He has really good command of the offense, number one. You see the same thing with Eli, he gets everybody in the right spots, he knows where everything's going to be."
Herzlich believes the quarterbacks are similar.
"They're both confident leaders," he said. "And they both win. They both want their team to be the best they can be. I think that's what defines them."
On Sunday, those teams will need their quarterbacks to be at their best to advance to the divisional round of the playoffs.
*Aside from Herzlich, the seven other players on the Giants' injury report today were listed as probable. The group includes defensive end Justin Tuck, who did not practice because of a sore shoulder. The other players on the list were limited in practice: Running backs Ahmad Bradshaw (foot) and Da'Rel Scott (knee), defensive end Osi Umenyiora (ankle/knee), cornerback Corey Webster (hamstring), offensive lineman Tony Ugoh (ankle) and Ballard (knee).
Ballard should return to action after missing the final two games of the regular season.
"I feel pretty good," Ballard said. "The first day (Wednesday) I got limited reps. I got more reps on Thursday and felt pretty good. Today, I took pretty much all of the snaps and felt great. I feel comfortable and optimistic about playing in the game."
"He seemed to have ended on an up note," Coughlin said. "He moved well today so I am very optimistic about that."
*Atlanta linebacker Stephen Nicholas is doubtful with a toe injury. Cornerback Brent Grimes is questionable with a knee injury. The Falcons have 18 players listed as probable.
*Manning is 3-1 against the Falcons and won his last three games against them. He made his first NFL start against Atlanta on Nov. 21, 2004, when he completed 17 of 37 passes for 162 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in a 14-10 loss. The Giants beat the Falcons in Atlanta in 2006 and '07 and here in 2009. Manning threw for more than 300 yards in the 2007 and 2009 games.
*The Falcons have a three-game postseason losing streak, falling in the 2004 NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia, as well as in Arizona in 2008 and at home to Green Bay last year. The Giants lost their two most recent postseason home games, to Carolina in 2005 and Philadelphia in 2008. Their last home playoff victory was against Minnesota in the 2000 NFC Championship Game.
*The Giants are 11-9 in postseason home games (not including the three Super Bowls in which they were the home team), while Atlanta is 3-7 in postseason road games.
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