The Atlanta Falcons finally won a decisive victory, straying from their usual close encounters to dominate the New York Giants from beginning to end in a lopsided 34-0 contest on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
Returning home from only their second loss of the season against the Carolina Panthers last week, not only did the Falcons improve to 7-0 at home and 12-2 overall, but they continued their legacy of not having two consecutive losses since 2009.
And they did it this time by firing from all cylinders with a convincing offensive and defensive effort against the defending Super Bowl champions, which will no doubt quiet some critics just weeks before the start of post-season play.
With the win, Atlanta moved a step closer to wrapping up the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs, which includes a first-round bye. They needed help, however, from the Chicago Bears and the New England Patriots yesterday, but both teams were defeated. Atlanta can still gain top-seeding if they defeat the Detroit Lions on Saturday night.
But as a mental boost, the Falcons earned bragging rights to having defeated both “Mannings” this season – renowned NFL quarterbacks Peyton of the Denver Broncos (on Sept. 17) and most recently, brother Eli of the Giants. In fact, last week in New York’s 52-27 win over the New Orleans Saints, the latter Manning threw for four touchdowns.
But in Week 15, as the Falcons were having their way with the Giants, Manning appeared out of sync with his offensive unit struggling throughout the game. Aside from a few short passes by the quarterback that were turned into sizable gains by his receivers, he was more consistently off target. Meanwhile, the Giants as a whole were finding difficulties everywhere – even on special teams.
The Falcons took over on their first possession early on New York’s 16-yard line after Manning was intercepted on his second play from scrimmage. The Giants had won the coin toss and elected to receive the opening kickoff, but cornerback Asante Samuel stepped in to pick off a pass intended for wide receiver Hakeem Nicks on second-and-7, deep in New York territory. Four plays later, Atlanta was on the board.
“We played well in all phases of the game, credit to the offense, defense and special teams,” said Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon.
Atlanta’s game plan was simple – establish a running attack early in the same fashion it did in defeating the New Orleans Saints during the NFC South rivals’ second match up on Nov. 29.
Similarly, by running four consecutive running plays on their first offensive set, just prior to Michael Turner taking a 1-yard touchdown plunge into the end zone, the Falcons’ proved they wanted to strike quickly. And quickly they did – putting up the game’s first points within three minutes. But unlike the game against the Saints, this time they never looked back.
“I think that the run game was really crucial for us. Getting that going early, and making their defensive line have to defend both, having to rush the passer and defend the run and the draw was crucial,” Atlanta Head Coach Mike Smith said.
Giants’ coach Tom Coughlin put in more succinctly by saying: “They played well, and we didn’t play well. …We didn’t stop the run.”
By scoring the game’s first touchdown at the 12:14 mark, Turner tallied his 59th career rushing TD in his 72 games with Atlanta, which ranks him second in the NFL in the last five seasons. And a subsequent PAT by kicker Matt Bryant, Atlanta took a 7-0 lead.
Only in the second quarter did the Giants appear competitive – but that was only on paper. In those 15 minutes, New York gained 126 yards – 85 through the air and another 41 on the ground, and managed to covert two tough third downs.
However, these same Giants suffered another miscue when Manning threw his second interception to Atlanta’s Thomas DeCoud early in the second quarter, setting up a 38-yard field goal by Matt Bryant to put the Falcons ahead, 17-0.
Then New York’s offense suffered its two biggest setbacks of the first half. Twice the Giants were restrained on fourth-down attempts during the period by hard-nosed defensive plays on the part of the Falcons. And again in the third quarter, Atlanta’s defense held steadfast on a fourth-and-2 when Jonathan Babineaux pressured Manning to throw incomplete to running back Kregg Lumpkin.
“Gigantic. Absolutely gigantic,” Coach Smith called the defensive plays. “Those three fourth down stops are like turnovers. We know that when you make them as a football team it can change the momentum. It multiplies when you stop them on defense. The guys did a very nice job controlling the line of scrimmage on those fourth downs.”
The first failed attempt came when Weatherspoon stopped Lumpkin cold for no gain on Atlanta’s 32 yard line, allowing the Falcons offense to take over. But more importantly, it was the second stop that came within the red zone with the Giants threatening from the Atlanta’s 11, that set the tone for the remainder of the game.
Again it was Samuel, who this time broke up a Manning to Victor Cruz pass as the Falcons again regained possession on downs.
“We had trouble converting. We put together some good drives, but just didn’t convert on third down,” Manning said during the post-game press conference.
And to add insult to injury, sandwiched between the two failed fourth down attempts in the second quarter was New York kicker Lawrence Tynes’ 38-yard botched field goal that should have been a routine shot. Instead, 10 plays later Ryan connected with All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez for a 12-yard touchdown pass high and over the middle that culminated a 10-play, 80-yard drive that lasted more than 13 minutes. The result: Falcons 14, Giants 0.
Statistically speaking, the Falcons’ first quarter was picture-perfect.
Atlanta had six total first downs in the opening period, enabling the team to chalk up 97 total yards – 66 passing and 31 rushing – compared to only two first downs by New York. The “Dirty Birds” also went 2-for-2 in both red zone efficiency and third-down efficiency while Ryan completed 6-of-6 passes, including four first down tosses for a 152.1 rating. In comparison, Manning’s rating was only a 14.3 during the same span.
Atlanta’s dominance over the Giants continued through the third and fourth quarters, most noticeable in time of possession. The Falcons’ successful third down conversions and yards passing kept New York’s defensive unit on the field way too long.
In the third, the Birds were able to register seven first downs compared to just three by New York. And of the 153 yards compiled by Atlanta during the period, 104 came through the air, including a 40-yard touchdown strike from Ryan to wide out Julio Jones to put the Falcons up 24-0.
Jones and receiver Harry Douglas were Ryan’s main targets throughout the third, picking up 48 and 46 receiving yards respectively. The drive which included Jones’ deep TD reception lasted eight plays and rolled over 80 yards, but took up just 3:29.
In contrast, on the Falcons ensuing possession that began at the 6:43 mark of the third, following yet another ill-fated fourth down attempt by the Giants, Atlanta’s ball control enveloped the clock, leaving just 14 seconds after Bryant kicked his second field goal of the day – a 19-yarder – that gave the Falcons a 27-0 advantage.
In the fourth it was much the same. The Falcons posted seven first downs whereas New York could only move the chains once. Ryan was a perfect 7-for-7 in the passing, utilizing his backfield and receivers in putting up 69 additional passing yards while taking time off the clock.
Ryan finished the day completing 23-of-28 passes for 270 yards and three touchdowns while breaking his own franchise record for passing yards in a season. He also connected on three deep throws of 40, 37 and 36 yards.
Manning completed 13-of-25 passes for 161 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions.
Weatherspoon had an exceptional game, leading the Atlanta defense with six tackles.