ATLANTA — As statement games go, the Atlanta Falcons could not have made a more emphatic one on Sunday.
Coming off a humbling loss to an inferior opponent, the Falcons took advantage of two first-half interceptions to jump all over the New York Giants en route to shellacking the defending Super Bowl champions 34-0, delivering a hit to the Giants’ playoff chances in the process.
The Falcons — who were humiliated in a 24-2 loss to the Giants last January in an NFC Wildcard game — improved to 12-2. With Atlanta already having won the NFC South, a loss by San Francisco on Sunday night against New England could earn the Falcons a first-round bye. Home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs is just a win away in Atlanta’s final two at Detroit and home against Tampa Bay.
Meanwhile, the Giants fell to 8-6 and were passed in the NFC East race by surging Washington, which defeated Cleveland for its fifth straight win, and Dallas, which beat Pittsburgh in overtime.
The Redskins are 3-1 in the division, while the Cowboys are 3-2 and the Giants are 2-3.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin put it aptly when he said his team played “very, very bad” and that the result was “very, very disappointing.”
“Instead of taking a step forward,” he said, “we went back.”
Because Atlanta has won so many close games this season — especially over bad teams — many have questioned how good they really are, particularly because they are 0-3 in head coach Mike Smith’s four previous seasons in the playoffs.
Tight end Tony Gonzalez recognized as much last week after the Falcons fell behind Carolina (4-9 after that game) 23-0 and lost 30-20. Gonzalez said validation or recognition will only come with a playoff win — then he seemed to offer a shot at the media.
“The old (Bill Parcells) quote, whatever it is, ‘You are what your record says you are,’ and we’re a good football team,” he said. “We’re not going to let anybody mess with our focus or our psyche. We know the reality of it, and I understand it. I understand why the media doesn’t have the stomach to pick us, to get on that bandwagon, but it doesn’t matter to us anyway.”
Few Falcons would say the game made a statement, but it’s obvious the team’s doubters are fueling them.
“We love the haters, man,” said Falcons cornerback Asante Samuel, whose interception on the second play from scrimmage set the tone. “The haters keep us going, so just keep the hate coming. We love it. It makes us play with a chip on our shoulder. We love it.”
Nonetheless, Sunday’s victory coupled with a 27-21 win in Week 2 over Denver, which is emerging as a top threat in the AFC, could change perceptions.
It started with the play of Samuel, who stepped in front of a pass headed for Hakeem Nicks, intercepted it at the Giants’ 22-yard line and returned it 6 yards. Michael Turner followed with four runs to power the ball into the end zone.
The series was an early sign that the game would go differently than last year’s playoff meeting, when the Falcons struggled to run the ball and failed to convert numerous short-yardage situations, including two on fourth down.
In fact, the shoe would later be on the other foot.
The Falcons went up 14-0 on their second possession after driving 80 yards in 10 plays, culminating in a 12-yard touchdown reception by Gonzalez, who plucked the ball out of midair and then, as is his custom, dunked it over the crossbar.
On the Giants’ fourth possession, Atlanta safety Thomas DeCoud intercepted Manning with 12:08 left before halftime at the Giants’ 27. That led to a 38-yard field goal by Matt Bryant with 10:22 left and a 17-0 lead.
Then the Falcons turned the tables on the Giants in terms of short yardage. On third-and-2 from the Falcons’ 32, Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon stopped Kregg Lumpkin for 1 yard. On fourth down, he stopped David Wilson with another solo tackle.
On the Giants’ final possession before halftime, they again failed to convert when they needed a single yard.
Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas stopped Lumpkin for no gain on third down. On fourth, Victor Cruz could not hold on to a pass with Samuel in coverage. Smith called the fourth-down stops — New York was 0-for-3 overall on the day, while Atlanta was 0-for-3 in the playoffs last season — “gigantic.”
The second half was more of the same, beginning with a 40-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to Julio Jones. Jones would sandwich a 3-yard touchdown catch around another Bryant field goal.
Jones, the sixth overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, went over the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career on Sunday and now has nine touchdown receptions this season. The Falcons’ shutout was their first in more than 10 years.
The showing for the Giants was about as bad as possible: They lost the time of possession battle 38:57 to 21:03, were outgained 394 to 256 and were minus-3 in turnover margin.
The Giants have lost control of their own destiny in the division, but with two wins against struggling Baltimore and Philadelphia might give them a chance to earn a wild-card berth. Manning was asked about his team’s playoff chances possibly being out of its control.
“You know what; they’re in our hands in the fact that we have two games left and we have to win those two games,” said Manning, who completed 13 of 25 passes for 161 yards and whose 38.9 rating was his lowest since Dec. 23, 2007. “What else happens after that, we don’t know. We can’t control (that), but we can control those two games we play and we know we need to win those.”