Given a choice, which team should Green Bay have wanted to host next Sunday in a second-round playoff game?
The answer isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem.
New Orleans was the toast of clubs playing on wild-card weekend. The Saints have won eight straight games. They field a prolific offense — especially indoors — and were 1 yard from sending a season-opening loss at Green Bay into overtime.
But as the Saints venture to San Francisco for a Saturday matchup with the 49ers, it’s the less-flashy squad heading to Lambeau Field that could become a bigger Packers nightmare.
The New York Giants are greatly improved since almost upsetting then-unbeaten Green Bay in early December. The Atlanta Falcons learned exactly how much better in a 24-2 loss at MetLife Stadium on Sunday.
“We’re so together now,” Giants defensive tackle Linval Joseph said of his team’s growth over the past five weeks. “We’re all on the same page. Earlier, we had injuries and just didn’t play good team football. Now, we’ve figured out the problems and we’re moving.”
Although the Packers needed a late drive to post a 38-35 victory at New York in Week 13, that Giants team had significant flaws. The running game long a staple of New York’s offense couldn’t get into gear. A defensive backfield wracked by injuries was struggling despite the steady pressure being provided by New York’s vaunted front. The Giants dropped to 6-6 after the Green Bay loss and needed to win their final two regular-season games for a playoff berth.
Their dominance of Atlanta showed those problems are fixed.
The mocking of Atlanta’s old-school “dirty bird” touchdown dance by Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks after a 72-yard score was only part of the humiliation Sunday. A Falcons offense that prides itself on power running was stuffed on two fourth-and-1 sneaks by quarterback Matt Ryan. Head coach Mike Smith eschewed field-goal attempts on both plays — a decision that will surely lead to an offseason of scrutiny and second-guessing with Atlanta (10-7) havign lost its opening playoff game for the third time in four seasons.
“We’re stingy like that,” said Giants defensive tackle Chris Canty, who was part of the charge that stuffed Ryan twice. “Fourth-and-1 is really about heart and want-to. We wanted it more than they did.”
Ryan wasn’t any better in the passing game. The only points Atlanta could muster came on a first-quarter intentional grounding penalty called in the end zone on Giants quarterback Eli Manning. The Falcons mustered 185 yards until a fourth-quarter drive when the game was well out of hand.
“If we continue to play defense like that, we can make ourselves heard in this tournament,” Giants head coach Tom Coughlin gushed.
Coughlin was equally thrilled with the reemergence of his team’s rushing attack to complement Manning’s three-touchdown effort. The Giants had scant long runs during the regular season, but jaunts of 34 and 30 yards by Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, respectively, led to 10 points Sunday. The kids who playfully wrestled Jacobs to the floor in the locker room during postgame interviews might have done a better job than a Falcons defense that surrendered 172 overall rushing yards and sacked Manning only once on 32 pass attempts.
“Brandon’s long run got us going early on,” Giants left guard Kevin Boothe said. “After that, we were able to pretty much do what we needed to control the clock and the tempo of the game.
“In the second half of the year, we started to make improvements. We’re becoming more consistent. That’s the main thing. We’re cutting out so many of the negative runs. Even if you only get 1 or 2 yards, keep them positive and eventually we’ll get some plays.”
The Giants (10-7) will need more than “some” plays against Green Bay. Like the Saints inside the Superdome, Green Bay has proved to be an offensive juggernaut at home. Not only must the Giants keep pace, the defense can’t allow another four-touchdown passing performance by Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and hope to win.
“It still feels like we can play better — and we probably will have to going up to Green Bay,” Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said. “Earlier in the year when we were trying to find out identity and struggling, a lot of individual stuff was showing up. Now, it’s just all about team effort and playing as a team.”
A team that the Packers might not want to face if they could pick their poison.
“We know what’s at stake, and it’s one (loss) and done,” said Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, the leader of New York’s pass rush. “We aren’t going to let that happen. We are going to give all our effort and walk away with a win.