At this point we know the teams, and we know the most important players in Sunday's match-up, but how did the Falcons and Giants reach this point? The answer lies in bizarre inconsistency from both Atlanta and New York.
The former had a quality, statement win over the Detroit Lions, but they also allowed teams to play them far too close based on their talent level; there's little excuse for only managing a two point win over Seattle. The Falcons were a team throughout the season who struggled with starting WR Julio Jones missing games, as well as starting C Todd McClure, but is that really enough to warrant shoddy performances?
If there's one team more consistently-inconsistent than Atlanta, it was the New York Giants. They were beaten twice by Washington and lost to Seattle, however, they coupled these abysmal performances with solid wins over Dallas (twice), the Jets and New England.
A great deal of this inconsistency rests on the shoulders of quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Eli Manning. Most should understand Ryan's MO- he's one of the most deadly QBs in the NFL when he gets into a rhythm, but too often he can get disrupted early and fall into a funk for the entire game. Among starting QBs you'd be hard presser to find one with a larger swing of good and bad performances; on five occasions in 2011 Ryan finished five games with a QB rating of less than 80, and in another seven games he posted ratings over 100. This swing often threw off the Atlanta offense, and lost them the game by extension.
Then there's Eli Manning, who like Ryan had five games where he posted a rating less than 80, and six games with a rating over 100. In those games where the quarterbacks posted ratings over 100 their teams combined for 11-2 on the season. Unlike Ryan, Manning tends not to get in or out of rythym early, but is typically a slow starter who slowly builds until he's near unstoppable in close games in the 4th quarter. This will be the key for Atlanta on Sunday, jump on the Giants early and hope their lead is too big for Manning to surmount late in the game, if they leave the game in the balance he's the kind of player who will find a way.
One final area of concern should be present for both teams, the advantage (or lack thereof) of playing at home. This season the Falcons were 6-2 at home, and 4-4 on the road, whereas the G-Men were actually stronger away from home (5-3) than they were at the Meadowlands (4-4). At least on the surface it would seem that both teams would prefer flipping the venue on Sunday.
The battle lines are drawn, and based on what we've seen in 2011 both the Falcons and Giants cna be adequately desribed as 'consistently inconsistent'. It's very hard to gauge which version of each team will show up, but in the NFL playoffs anything can happen.