Wild-Card Grades: Falcons-Giants
Brandon Jacobs looked unstoppable for a Giants run game that struggled all year
Matt Ryan, Falcons' supposed high-powered offense couldn't get anything done
Bad decisions by Mike Smith on a key 4th-and-1 gave the Giants new life
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Grading out the performances from the New York Giants' dominant 24-2 win over Atlanta Sunday in NFC wild-card action.
Quarterback: "Matty Ice" might need a new name: "Matty Stone Cold" would be a good place to start.
He was unable to generate much in the way of offense in his first two career playoff losses with the Falcons. But Sunday's game, his third in the postseason, was the worst of the bunch. The Atlanta offense was blanked, an especially huge indictment of the quarterback's skills in this pass-happy era of the NFL, and Ryan was completely ineffective. His 41 pass attempts produced just 199 yards (a dismal 4.9 YPA). This after the organization went out of its way to arm Ryan with weapons this year, namely in the controversial draft-day deal to land WR Julio Jones with its top pick. The team obviously expected the move to pay off. This year, and in this game in particularly, it did not. Grade: F
Running Backs: The game got off to an inauspicious start: Jacquizz Rodgers dropped a clean pass in his hands for a potential first down, ending Atlanta's second straight three-and-out to start the game. It got no better from there. Franchise back Michael Turner led the team with 41 yards on 15 attempts (2.7 YPA) as Atlanta's solid running game disappeared in the biggest game of the season. Grade: D-
Receivers: Atlanta's foolish decision to mortgage its future by trading five draft picks to get wide receiver Julio Jones came crashing down around it on Sunday. The move didn't help in the regular season -- the Falcons scored fewer points this year than they did last year and won three fewer games. And it certainly didn't help on Sunday. Atlanta's star-studded pass-catching corps of Jones, Roddy White and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez were non-factors, unable to get separation. They combined for 16 ineffective catches for 160 yards. Decent numbers, but zero game-changing plays for such a high-profile trio. Grade: C-
Offensive Line: Each time the Atlanta offensive line had a chance to make a statement, it failed badly. Twice it tried to pave the way for Ryan to convert sneaks on 4th-and-1 plays. Twice it failed to move the pile. The second attempt was a particularly bad effort. Ryan tried to pound the ball behind center Todd McClure and right guard Justin Blalock, but the linemen generated zero movement out of a New York defensive line that was one of the worst in the football stopping the run all year (allowing 4.5 YPA on the ground). Atlanta's offensive line did not win the battle of pass protection, but neither was it overwhelmed by a New York defensive front that was one of the best in football at generating pressure on QBs. Grade: D+
Defensive Line: Atlanta's defensive front looked strong early in the game -- in fact it looked like it might even take control, stifling the Giants through the first quarter. But with the exception of an early sack by defensive end John Abraham, Atlanta's defensive line was overmatched, and the starting four of Abraham, Ray Edwards, Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters were barely heard from all day. Grade: D+
Linebackers: Curtis Lofton had a big day, with a game-high 12 tackles. But it was an otherwise no-impact day for a linebacking crew that was overmatched when the game counted most. Grade: D
Defensive Backs: James Sanders pressured Eli Manning in the end zone on a safety blitz early in the second quarter, forcing the Giants QB to ground the ball, resulting in a safety and a 2-0 lead for Atlanta. Chris Owens made a pair of nice deflections, at one point preventing a Hakeem Nicks' touchdown with a big stop in the third quarter. But the Atlanta secondary also did its best impression of the Keystone Kops on Nicks' long touchdown, falling at his feet as the Giants WR took off with a back-breaking 72-yard TD. Grade: C-
Special Teams: Matt Bosher kicked off once and booted seven punts, pinning the Giants inside the 20 just once. Matt Bryant did not get a single field goal opportunity. The return game was a non-factor. Grade: A generous 'Incomplete'
Coaching: The Falcons still had a fighting chance, trailing 10-2 but driving late in the third quarter, when Mike Smith and his staff made a pair of decisions that failed disastrously. First, they passed up the chance at three points by going for it on 4th-and-1, with the game still in doubt. Second, Ryan's QB sneak was snuffed out by Jason Pierre-Paul and Chase Blackburn, with virtually no chance of succeeding. Third, Michael Turner, the team's prolific 1,000-yard back, was on the sidelines for that play.
Ryan's rush came from an empty backfield set that fooled nobody. The series of events was a perfect microcosm of an ineffective and confused offensive game plan against a New York defense that surrendered more regular season points (400) than any other team in the playoff field. Grade: F
Quarterback: Eli Manning started out slowly, but a prolific season highlighted by several game-winning drives and huge performances down the stretch continued in the playoffs. When the offense was struggling, Manning remained cool, using conservative dump-offs to keep drives alive. By the end of the day, he had crafted another big performance in a big game: 23 of 32 for 277 yards, 3 TD, no interceptions and a 129.3 rating. It ended up as one of the best statistical performances of his career, postseason or otherwise. Only a decision to dump off the ball from his own end zone under pressure, handing the Falcons their only points of the game, marred an otherwise great postseason performance. Grade: A-
Running Backs: New York's backs picked up steam after a slow start in the second quarter, a performance highlighted by a 34-yard rumble by Brandon Jacobs, during which he overpowered several defenders. His longest gain of the season moved the ball to the Atlanta 15 and was the biggest play in a monster 13-play, 85-yard drive that gave the Giants a 7-2 lead late in the first half. The giant Jacobs was a giant disappointment throughout 2011, but he looked to be in his unstoppable 2007/2008 form, leading all rushers with 92 yards on 14 attempts. Grade: B+
Receivers: Nicks sparkled with two touchdown receptions. The first score was stabbed out of the air at the back of the end zone to give the Giants a 7-2 lead they would not relinquish. The second came after he caught a pass at his own 33, after a short throw from Manning, and then split the entire Atlanta secondary for a 72-yard touchdown jaunt. He ended the day with six catches for 115 yards. Victor Cruz, whose record-setting 1,536-yard season overshadowed a 1,000-yard season by Hicks (1,192 yards), was quiet all day (two catches, 28 yards). Tight end Jake Ballard let a sure touchdown reception fly through his hands in the back of the end zone midway through the third quarter. Grade: B
Offensive Line: The New York offense was dead last in the NFL in average per rush attempt in 2011 (3.47 YPA), an indictment of the offensive line. It was a different unit against Atlanta, dominating the battle in the trenches, while keeping Manning clean after the Falcons had generated some early pressure. New York's offensive line allowed just one sack and paved the way for 172 rushing yards on 31 carries (an impressive 5.5 YPA). The Giants' line also cleared the way for one of the turning points in the game: Chris Snee and Kareem McKenzie carved a huge hole in the Falcons' defensive front, allowing Jacobs to easily convert a 4th-and-1 deep in Atlanta territory and setting up the game's first touchdown. Grade: A
Defensive Line: The team's powerful defensive front did not dominate the game, but it did control the game almost from start to finish. Defensive end Chris Canty laid a big hit on Ryan on Atlanta's first pass attempt, setting the tone for the game. Rocky Bernard sacked Ryan late in the second quarter, putting the Falcons in a big 3rd-and-21 hole at their own 9 with the feel of the game starting to turn decidedly in New York's favor. They repeatedly stuffed Atlanta on short conversion attempts, which proved to be huge plays. Grade: B+
Linebackers: Chase Blackburn shared the team lead with nine tackles and joined the victory party with a big stop of Michael Turner on a 3rd-and-1 play late in the third quarter. Mathias Kiwanuka has had better games and was unheard from all day long. Grade: B
Defensive Backs: Safety Antrel Rolle made his presence felt with nine tackles, helping lead a secondary that rendered Atlanta's star-studded receiving corps utterly ineffective. Corners Aaron Ross and Corey Webster played very well in coverage -- there were no big moments, but also zero big plays against them. Grade: B+
Special Teams: Steve Weatherford's 39-yard coffin-corner punt pinned the Falcons at their own 10 late in the first quarter, the only thing close to a big play by either club on special teams. Lawrence Tynes booted a 22-yard field goal, but later missed one from 32. Grade: C
Coaching: Tom Coughlin is clearly able to rally his troops for big games: The Giants have been at their best in the last two weeks, beating the Cowboys 31-14 last week in a de facto playoff game for the NFC East title, then stomping the Falcons, 24-2, here in the playoffs, in the club's best all-around performance of the season. Signature moment: With the Falcons driving deep into New York territory, and the Giants clinging to a 10-2 lead late in the third quarter, Coughlin lobbied officials for an illegal substitution penalty. Coughlin was right, the Falcons had 12 men in the huddle and were penalized five yards. Atlanta picked up 14 yards on the next play, leading to a 4th-and-1 and a Ryan sneak that the Falcons failed to convert. Manning connected with Nicks for that 72-yard TD three plays later and the game was over -- a turn of events set in motion by Coughlin. Grade: A