Giants Beat Falcons in N.F.C. Wild-Card Game

This week, though, it will be difficult for even the most resistant Giants not to consider the good old days. Four years ago, the Giants rode a late-season surge to an unlikely championship, and now — after , in an N.F.C. wild-card game on Sunday at MetLife Stadium — the Giants are three victories from a title that would surely be even more surprising.

Try as Coughlin might, the parallels are becoming impossible to ignore. The 2007 Giants lumbered through a roller-coaster regular season but were buoyed by in Week 17. They then ) before going to Green Bay two weeks later and stunning the Packers in the N.F.C. championship game.

This season, the Giants — who started 6-2 only to fall into a four-game losing streak — found a jump start after by the score of … 38-35. They then won their final two games to secure the N.F.C. East title and set up Sunday’s matchup with the Falcons, who outdid the Buccaneers when it came to playing the fall guy. Atlanta’s anemic offense, which finished with just 247 total yards, rendered much of the second half meaningless as the crowd celebrated.

Not surprisingly, the attention turned quickly to next Sunday’s return to Lambeau Field for the Giants. Defensive end Justin Tuck laughed when he was asked for his memories from the , which came in typical Wisconsin conditions.

“Cold,” Tuck said, mentioning . “I remember David Diehl’s sweat had frozen on his hair, so he had icicles on his hair.”

Tuck then added: “What else? I remember us winning.”

indicate potential snow showers with a temperature in the 20s — “tropical,” in Tuck’s estimation — though the Giants will also have to contend with Aaron Rodgers, a favorite to be the league’s most valuable player. Against the Giants in December, Rodgers passed for 369 yards and 4 touchdowns, including four completions on a quick drive at the end of the game to set up the winning field goal.

The Giants, however, will be confident in their own quarterback, as Manning continued his career year Sunday by throwing for 277 yards and 3 touchdowns. Hakeem Nicks, , re-emerged, catching two of the scoring passes, including a 72-yarder in the third quarter to break open the game.

Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw also bolstered the Giants, combining for 155 rushing yards. The Giants finished the regular season (averaging just 89.2), but Jacobs and Bradshaw each ripped off a run of 30 or more yards, and the Giants limited Atlanta’s lead back, Michael Turner, to 41 yards on 15 carries.

That was only one of the many highlights for the Giants’ defense. Osi Umenyiora sacked Matt Ryan with just over a minute remaining to provide a fitting coda against an offense that did not score. In addition to limiting Turner, the Giants held the Falcons’ top receivers, Roddy White and Julio Jones, to 116 yards combined.

“They can’t run the ball on us,” Jason Pierre-Paul said, adding later that the Giants “are going to walk away with a win” against the Packers.

Asked if he was sure, Pierre-Paul grinned. “We’re sure,” he said.

While Coughlin and the Giants reveled in victory, the Falcons’ loss ensured another round of criticism for Ryan and Atlanta Coach Mike Smith. Smith, in particular, will face scrutiny for several debatable decisions, most notably after his team failed on two short fourth-down plays.

The second of those calls stung the most. With the Giants leading, 10-2, late in the third quarter, Smith opted to bypass a 38-yard field-goal attempt, instead sending Ryan on a sneak up the middle on fourth-and-inches. As it did on a similar play in the first half, however, the Giants’ defense steeled itself for an important stop, with Pierre-Paul tackling Ryan short of a first down.

Three plays later, Manning hit Nicks for his long touchdown pass — Nicks did the heavy lifting by sprinting between two would-be tacklers — to allow the comparisons to 2007 to begin in earnest.

Of course, players from that team like David Tyree, the former receiver who was an honorary captain Sunday, might point out an interesting discrepancy. Those players won three road games before reaching the Super Bowl. In fact, home playoff games under Coughlin had been a bugaboo for the Giants, who lost in two previous opportunities with him and last won a postseason game at home in 2001.

Those defeats — to Carolina in 2006 and to Philadelphia in 2009 — were demoralizing, and early on Sunday, there was a sluggishness to the Giants’ play that felt foreboding.

On the Giants’ first four possessions, they punted three times and yielded a safety when Manning was penalized for intentional grounding in the end zone.

That sequence hushed the fans, who had been waving their white towels excitedly after the Giants stymied Atlanta on a fourth-and-1 moments earlier. Indeed, for much of the first half, both offenses looked discombobulated.

But the Giants finally broke the offensive deadlock late in the second quarter, when they succeeded where the Falcons could not. Faced with his own fourth-and-inches on the Atlanta 6, Coughlin eschewed a short field goal and sent Jacobs into the line for a 2-yard gain. On the next play, Manning found Nicks in the back of the end zone to give the Giants a lead they did not relinquish.

Now it is on to Green Bay for the Giants — with no doubt a quick stopover in the pleasant past along the way.

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For Falcons, So Much Progress and So Little to Cheer

In their first home playoff game since 2005, the Falcons fell down during the second quarter Saturday night and could never rise up off the turf. Their partisans began to flee the Georgia Dome halfway through the third quarter, as if they had encountered .

After a , who progressed to the N.F.C. championship game next Sunday against the , “rise up” gave way in the losing locker room to variations of “we will learn from this.”

“You get all those wins to get into this position,” Falcons running back Michael Turner said of a 13-3 regular season that led to a top seed in the playoffs. “To not be able to take advantage of having home field is shocking right now.”

The lesson learned?

“The main thing is that nothing is guaranteed,” he said. “Just because you have home field doesn’t mean you can just walk through the playoffs. It’s a totally different season once the playoffs start.”

On Sunday, between exit interviews with players, that the Falcons must figure out how to convert the good works of September to December into better works in what he termed “the second season.”

“Ultimately, when your expectations are raised, you’re not necessarily talking about just the regular season,” Smith said. “You start talking about the second season, and that’s something that we’ve earned.

He added: “We’re going to have to be able to deal with it because we plan on being in this situation again very shortly.”

Owing to their middling rankings in a few of the league’s principal statistical categories, the Falcons’ shiny record was assessed in some corners as deceptive. Their offense does not produce big plays on cue, and their defense is one year removed from being overhauled.

Still, there were numerically validated areas of strength, many of which the Falcons betrayed Saturday.

¶Penalized the least of all teams, they were flagged a season-high seven times.

¶Third in fewest sacks allowed, they allowed five, also a season high.

¶Fourth in turnover differential, they committed four while forcing only one.

¶Eighth in time of possession, they held the ball barely a third of the game (21 minutes 41 seconds).

The ’ scoring drives were so long — four covered at least 80 yards — that the Atlanta offense could have napped on the bench. The only punting by Green Bay’s Tim Masthay was into the practice netting on the sideline.

The Falcons’ defense did not display the togetherness illustrated last Monday, when Kroy Biermann rescued his fellow defensive end after Abraham’s vehicle spun off an icy interstate highway on the way to practice. Abraham was unhurt.

“There were a number of opportunities, especially on third down, where we had opportunities to make plays and we didn’t get them done,” said Smith, who counted four potential sacks that were not finished off.

Atlanta’s offense, with five Pro Bowl selections and an alternate, gave voters reason to re-examine their ballots, especially the ones listing Matt Ryan instead of Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers.

Ryan, in his third year, is one of the ’s best young quarterbacks. His status is reflected with appearances in freshly released .

But Rodgers was the sharpest passer Saturday, with a performance that Smith said measured up to only one other in his memory — by .

The Falcons are not big spenders in free agency; their team salary of $121.3 million was the lowest among the N.F.L.’s final eight, and they are disinclined to bring in high-priced players before next season.

In fact, they will lose one if tight end Tony Gonzalez retires. Few felt the pain of Saturday’s defeat more than Gonzalez, a 14-year veteran. He has prompted the announcer’s call of “complete to Gonzalez” more than any other tight end in league history, but his career remains incomplete without a playoff victory.

“It’s tough, real tough,” said Gonzalez, who said he would evaluate his future in the coming weeks. “It leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”

The sting from the franchise’s most crushing postseason loss yet — with only 16 playoff games, the sample is small — could trigger cries from the Falcons faithful for a makeover. While the “rise up” slogan may fade away, Smith favors no major alterations.

“The perception in this league is that you’re only as good as your last game; it’s really not reality,” he said. “The sky is not falling. I can assure you of that. We played a very poor football game. I don’t think you want to overreact.”

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