EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Giants and Atlanta Falcons have lived in parallel NFL universes for most of the last five years.
In 2016, both teams finished 11-5. The Giants claimed their first postseason berth since winning Super Bowl XLVI and the Falcons advanced to Super Bowl LI, where they blew a 28-3 lead and lost to the New England Patriots in overtime, 34-28.
Atlanta returned to the playoffs the following year, while the Giants endured a 3-13 season. In the last three years, neither team posted a winning record. In 2020, the Giants were 6-10, while the Falcons fired coach Dan Quinn after an 0-5 start and finished last in the NFC South at 4-12.
Both teams now have 39-year-old first-time head coaches: Joe Judge is in his second season with the Giants, Arthur Smith is in his first with Atlanta. This young season, each team lost its opener at home – the Giants to Denver and the Falcons to Philadelphia – and dropped Week 2 road games. The Giants lost in Washington, 30-29, on a final-play field goal, and the Falcons were outscored in the fourth quarter, 20-0, in a 48-25 defeat at defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay.
Sunday afternoon, the teams will clash in MetLife Stadium in the week's only meeting of 0-2 teams, which raises the stakes for two teams determined to avoid a season-opening three-game losing streak. The Giants have the added incentive of trying to win on the day Eli Manning is inducted into the franchise's Ring of Honor and his No. 10 jersey is retired.
"Our goal is to go 1-0 every week," Judge said. "Our only focus right now is the Atlanta Falcons and getting better as a team, so that's what we keep our focus on right there. There's a lot of things that are big picture outside of this. You can't do anything to affect three months from now and you can't go back in time and replicate what happened. So, you've got to fix mistakes that happened and build on what you did successfully, but our target has got to be small. Right now, we have the Atlanta Falcons coming to town. They're a very good opponent. We know they're going to come in here with an explosive offense, a lot of multiples on defense and an aggressive kicking game. We've got to get ready for them to go out there and compete."
"Obviously, the season started off 0-2, but we have a great mindset within our team, within our locker room and with our coaches," running back Saquon Barkley said. "I'm excited to go out there and try to get a dub in front of our home fans and get this thing rolling."
The Falcons have allowed an NFL-high 80 points, a total inflated by Buccaneers safety Mike Edwards' two interception return touchdowns in the fourth quarter last week. Only two teams have scored fewer points than the Falcons' 31. Atlanta has not scored a fourth-quarter point, nor held a lead this year.
But all that matters to the Giants is the Falcons are the best team they will face this week.
"Atlanta, first off, it's a very well-coached team," Judge said. "Have a lot of respect for Arthur and how he puts his team together, how they approach the game.
"This is a good team, they've got a lot of good players. They definitely improved from Week 1 to Week 2. We expect to see the best football they have to play. We expect to see an up-tempo type of game with these guys looking to take shots and be explosive."
The Giants have their own issues, notably with a defense that has given up an average of 413.5 yards a game and allowed the Broncos and Washington to score 47 of their 57 points in the second and fourth quarters. Washington scored 13 points in the final period to overcome a Giants lead last week, prompting defensive coordinator Patrick Graham to field a question this week about whether he was frustrated.
"I'm focused right now really on Atlanta, but just to speak on it in terms of frustration, I'm frustrated with myself more than anything," Graham said. "Obviously, I've got to do a better job in those situations, the two-minute and stuff like that. Got to do a better job there, but thankfully Joe has given us a bunch of opportunities this week to work on it like he has every week and hopefully we execute it better. That's the only way I know how to attack it. Start with practice, start with the meetings, start with the preparation, and attack it full on and look to get better at it. That's how I've worked throughout my whole career, so thankfully we have another opportunity hopefully."
The Falcons have an impressive array of offensive weapons. Quarterback Matt Ryan, the 2016 NFL Most Valuable Player, is a 14-year veteran whose 349 touchdown passes are the 10th-highest total in league history. Calvin Ridley is a premier wide receiver who finished with 1,374 yards and a 15.3-yard average last season. Tight end Kyle Pitts was the fourth overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft and at 6-6 with above-average speed is an imposing target. Ridley and Pitts have combined for 21 catches and 228 yards.
The question for Judge and Graham is whether they tweak what they've been doing or try something different.
"I think it's a combination of both," Judge said. "I think there's an element of maybe calling the game a little bit different within the situations of who we're playing against. That's not a knock on anything we've done, it's just looking forward in terms of what we're doing, what we can do to adjust to put our guys in the right position.
"In terms of the details, we just have to do a good job as coaches making sure the players have a clear mental picture of what they're supposed to do and then going out there and executing it with the details. It's definitely a combination of both. We're always looking to adjust as coaches, do something better for ourselves to put the players in a position to be successful, and then we go out to practice, keep our target small, make sure we understand each play – what the process of being successful is on that, and make sure we carry out those details of the execution of it."
Offensively, the Giants are expected to welcome back Pro Bowl tight end Evan Engram, who missed the first two games with a calf injury. Barkley has rushed for 83 yards on 23 carries, including a 41-yarder. The Giants have other weapons that could get more involved in the offense; wideouts Kenny Golladay and Darius Slayton and tight end Kyle Rudolph have combined for 17 catches or one more than Sterling Shepard has.
"I thought we made some strides (last week)," offensive coordinator Jason Garrett said. "I thought we did a good job having a balanced attack, attacking them different ways - running it and throwing it. That's what you're trying to do. It's a good defense. It's a really good defensive front. Those guys are hard to block. They've done a good job keeping offenses from moving the ball and from scoring points. Certainly, a competitive game. We did some positive things and certainly plenty of stuff we've got to clean up."
Sunday would be a good day to start that process.
"Every game is big," quarterback Daniel Jones said. "I think we look at this week and the goal is to win this week, to be 1-0 this week, so that's where we're focused. Improving from last week, obviously we didn't do what we needed to do to win the game, so we've got to look at that and make sure we're ready for this week. But our focus is here on Atlanta and making sure we play as well as we can."
*The Falcons lead the regular-season series, 13-11. The Giants won the only postseason meeting, 24-2, in a 2011 NFC Wild Card Game. Atlanta has won the last two and three of the last four games in the series. The teams last met on Monday night, Oct. 22, 2018, when the Falcons won, 23-20, in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Eli Manning threw for 399 yards to help rally the Giants from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit. When the Giants last hosted the Falcons on Sept. 20, 2015, they led by 10 points early in the fourth quarter before Atlanta scored two touchdowns for a 24-20 triumph. From 1981-2007, the visiting team won 12 consecutive games in the series, the longest such streak in NFL history.
View rare photos of the all-time series between the New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons.