Sunday's matchup in the Meadowlands will be won or lost by the Falcons not because of any throw Matt Ryan can make or if Michael Turner actually has a solid game on the ground. If there's anything we've known about this offense all season, they've been consistently average. Sure they blew out teams like the Jaguars and Buccaneers, but that's about it.
The only way Atlanta walks away with their first playoff victory since 2004 can be summed up in two words: pass defense. If we see the secondary play like they did in the Superdome two weeks ago, then you can forget about a win.
The New York Giants passing attack, which is putting up the fifth-most passing yards per game in the league, will be facing a Falcons pass rush that has been far less spectacular than perhaps anyone envisioned. Ray Edwards, though he's made a number of impressive plays, has been anything but consistent. That's why perhaps the biggest factor for the Falcons in this postseason battle is easily...
John Abraham, And His Knack For Getting To The QB
Last weekend, Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan figured the best way to stop Eli Manning was throwing a bunch of complicated blitzes in his face in hopes of rattling him in the pocket. Turns out it didn't quite work. Despite his flaws, the younger Manning is having a fine season and has proven to have only improved with age.
Abraham is the only pass rusher the Falcons have that can singlehandedly turn the tide of a ball game. Sure, Corey Peters has had a great year creating pressure up the middle, but with 9.5 sacks and four forced fumbles in the regular season Abe's the guy who absolutely has to have a big game.
And when I say "get to the quarterback," I don't mean "beat the tackle but have Eli sidestep out of harm's way." To Abe or whoever else makes it into the backfield during Sunday's game: you have to wrap up!
Abraham will absolutely need to be present in the backfield, because that's the only way...
Brent Grimes And Dunta Robinson Can Bait Eli Into Bad Throws
Reminder: the Cowboys' attempts to throw all sorts of complicated blitzes at Eli failed. That plays right into the Falcons' hands, because Brian VanGorder prefers to only rush four and sit everyone else back in zone coverage.
Deep threats Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks have to be held in check. If Dunta Robinson doesn't wrap up on Sunday (we've seen him miss tackles before), well you might see something like this happen:
Victor Cruz Touchdown (via br8311)
Grimes and Robinson both have to eliminate the deep ball and bait Eli into making some bad throws. As good as Manning has been this year, he's had his share of bad games (see: four INTs in loss to Green Bay, and four in two losses to the Redskins). He's good, but far from perfect, and still has the tendency to force throws when a player might be well-covered.
One wrinkle the Giants have thrown into their offense is lining Cruz up in the slot, thereby matching him up against the nickelback (Dominique Franks) or a safety. That would be very bad news for the Falcons, and they'll want to have Grimes matched up on Cruz as much as possible, which could be tough since Falcons corners only stick to their designated sides of the line.
The good news is that Grimes, who was limited in practice on Friday, looks like he'll be playing. While Abe is important, Grimes and Dunta will be even more important against the Giants. If that's successful, all that's left for the Falcons to do is have...
The Linebackers Wrapping Up On Short Passes
As we know, the Giants are a pass-first offense focused on breaking off a big play through the air. They want to score quick. But if the Falcons can manage to take away the deep ball, offensive coordinator Jim Haslett has been known to turn to a more "dink and dunk" style of offense. This plays to the Falcons' strengths.
They like to complete short passes either to tight ends Jake Ballard or running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and D.J. Ware. Those three players account for about a third of Eli's completions this year. That's where the guys on D-block come in.
Curtis Lofton and Sean Weatherspoon are both Pro Bowl snubs, in my opinion. They've been excellent against the run all year, but have also made some big-time plays in coverage on those short passing plays the Giants like so much. If that's what the Giants start to rely on, then I'm pretty confident this game will be won by the Falcons.
I really hope Atlanta does win. This team has had way too much regular season success over the past four years to not even turn in one single playoff win. And as if there weren't enough reasons to hope the Falcons win on Sunday, Rob Parker just gave Atlanta a big one.
You know, there's a reason the guy debates Skip Bayless on ESPN2...