by Jon Wagner / SNYGiants columnist
Remembering the way their season ended last year, the Atlanta Falcons took out their frustrations on the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
Atlanta recalled failing to score an offensive point while getting routed during a humiliating NFC wild-card playoff defeat at New York last January, and unwilling to pass up a chance at gaining revenge, the NFC-best Falcons (12-2) turned the tables with a 34-0 beat down of the Giants (8-6) at the Georgia Dome on Sunday.
Suffering its first shutout loss in seven seasons (since a 23-0 home defeat to Carolina in an NFC wild-card playoff game) and its first regular season blanking in 16 years (since a 24-0 loss at Philadelphia, in 1996), New York also endured a severe blow to its playoff hopes for this season.
Atlanta’s win along Washington’s fifth straight victory and Dallas’ third consecutive win on Sunday has the Giants suddenly going from controlling their own destiny as NFC-East division leaders, to falling into a three-way tie for the division lead with two weeks to go in the regular season.
And, if the division title route to the postseason doesn’t ultimately pan out for New York, a second NFC North team has muddied the Giants’ playoff picture even more. Minnesota, which won its second game in a row on Sunday, pulled even with division mate Chicago (losers of three straight games) and the trio of NFC East leaders for a potential NFC wild-card berth.
Following a 52-27 home victory over New Orleans last week, New York also achieved the dubious distinction of being the fourth team in NFL history to be shut out a week after scoring at least 50 points.
Outgained 394-256 while running 20 fewer plays (67-47) and holding the ball for nearly 18 minutes less than the Falcons, the Giants missed a short first-quarter field goal and committed a pair of turnovers to help Atlanta take a 17-0 lead by halftime, as the Falcons got their seventh win in as many home games this season and their 11th in a row at home going back to last season.
The halftime margin was far more than the Falcons would need, but to make sure New York wouldn’t threaten at all in the second half, Atlanta scored on its first three drives of a half in which it controlled the ball for all but 6:28.
Quarterback Matt Ryan (23-for-28, 270 yards, three touchdowns, one sack) was nearly flawless while completing passes to eight different targets and taking advantage of the absence of a couple of injured starting Giants defensive backs (safety Kenny Phillips and cornerback Prince Amukamara).
The Giants were also missing injured starting running back Ahmad Bradshaw, leaving New York to rely on two other running backs, rookie David Wilson (12 carries, 55 yards) – following his breakout game, primarily as a kick returner last week – and Kregg Lumpkin (nine carries, 42 yards), who saw his first real action with New York after being signed three weeks ago to replace injured running back Andre Brown.
Although the duo held their own to keep the Falcons’ rushing edge modest (129-97), quarterback Eli Manning (13-for-25, 161 yards, two interceptions, one sack) struggled from his very first pass, which was picked off by Asante Samuel (one tackle, two pass deflections, one interception) on the second play of the game.
That too, was a small measure of redemption for Samuel, who dropped a would-be game-saving interception as a member of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. The Giants went on to win that game as Manning earned the first of his two Super Bowl MVP awards.
Starting at the New York 16-yard line, Atlanta took quick advantage of Samuel’s interception, with running back Michael Turner (16 carries, 52 yards, one touchdown) rushing four straight times to give the Falcons a 7-0 edge on a one-yard touchdown run just 2:48 into the game.
Wilson then ran 25 yards into Atlanta territory and Manning completed a 19-yard pass to wide receiver Domenik Hixon (five catches, 80 yards), but kicker Lawrence Tynes pulled a 30-yard field goal attempt to the left.
Seven plays later, Ryan connected for 37 yards up the left side to wide receiver Harry Douglas (three catches, 83 yards) – as rookie cornerback Jayron Hosley, filling in for Amukamara, failed to cover – to set up a 12-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to tight end Tony Gonzalez (six catches, 49 yards, one touchdown) that doubled the Falcons’ lead to 14-0 late in the opening quarter.
After the teams traded punts, Manning, looking for wide receiver Hakeem Nicks (three catches, 40 yards), was intercepted on a nice play by safety Thomas DeCoud (five tackles, one pass deflection, one interception) deep in Giants’ territory.
Again with a short field, Atlanta turned a New York miscue into points while settling for a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter on a 38-yard field goal by kicker Matt Bosher.
Taking the opening kickoff of the second half, the Falcons went 80 yards in eight plays to go up by 24 points on a 40-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to wide receiver Julio Jones (six catches, 74 yards, two touchdowns), 3:29 into the third quarter.
The Giants finally showed some life, going 55 yards to the Atlanta 25-yard line, but Manning threw incomplete to Lumpkin on fourth-and-two, and the Falcons, with the help of a 36-yard completion from Ryan to Douglas, moved to the New York one-yard line on a 12-play drive that took 6:43, to add a 19-yard field goal from kicker Matt Bryant, that increased Atlanta’s lead to a commanding 27-0 in the final seconds of the period.
New York then went three-and-out in under a minute before the Falcons used 9:14 to go 69 yards on 13 plays for a three-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to Jones with 4:57 left in the game.
Lumpkin fumbled two plays later, allowing Atlanta to run out the final 4:06 and put the Giants out of their misery.
Head coach Tom Coughlin, who had been pointing to his team’s final six regular season games as its own mini season of sorts, after the Giants’ Week 11 bye, noted how that stretch has been rife with inconsistency thus far.
An impressive 28-point rout of NFC North-leading Green Bay was followed with a one-point loss in Washington, prior to New York’s subsequent point explosion against New Orleans and the humbling loss in Atlanta.
“Unfortunately, we’re 2-2 in this six-game schedule and we needed to be better than that,” Coughlin said.
Thus, losing for the first time in their last eight trips to Atlanta (dating back to 1978), New York is back in the familiar role of seemingly having Super Bowl-caliber talent, yet being near the .500 mark and needing a late-season run to save its season and compete for an NFL title.
Coughlin, who has led the Giants to a couple of unlikely Super Bowl title runs from the four and five seeds in the NFC over the past five seasons, believes that type of feat can be accomplished again this season, if his squad can dig deep as it had before. “There’s a lot of pride and a lot of character in that locker room,” he said.
The team the Giants will meet next can certainly relate to New York’s current situation. The Giants, losers of four of their past six games following a four-game winning streak and a 6-2 start, will hit the road next Sunday at 4:25 pm ET, to play the struggling Baltimore Ravens (9-5), who after a 9-2 start that culminated with their own four-game winning streak, have lost three consecutive games, and are now clinging to a one-game lead in the AFC South.