No Longer Upstaged, Nicks Stars for Giants

All week, he stored his ego on a shelf in his dressing stall, alongside his helmet, right next to the irresistible Victor Cruz.

The recurring crowds formed to the left of Hakeem Nicks, , the undrafted wonder of the universe, and leaving the man with the first-round pedigree to mind his own preplayoff business.

“When it comes to the media, if you ask me a question, I’ll talk to you,” Nicks said when asked what it felt like to be a receiver with 1,192 yards and 7 touchdowns and yet drawing no coverage. “If not, well, maybe another day.”

Sunday — in the first playoff game of Nicks’s three-season Giants career — was his day to draw the crowds, the questions and the kudos as the most spectacularly deployed weapon of the Giants’ suddenly multidimensional arsenal.

“There were times I was in the slot and they paid more attention my way,” Cruz said. “That opened things up. Hakeem did a great job of taking advantage.”

Cruz acknowledged that it couldn’t have been easy for Nicks, having reporters to get Cruz’s attention.

“To do it here, on this stage, I’m just so happy for him,” he said.

With Cruz largely kept under control, Nicks caught two touchdown passes and contributed a diving third-down reception to set up a field goal. By the time those 17 points were on the board, the Falcons were mentally on the bus, dirty birds — playoff pigeons, really — on the way home to Atlanta.

In what is becoming a leaguewide epidemic of bad imitations of opponents’ victory dances, Nicks performed his version of the Falcons’ Dirty Bird celebration dance after his catch of a short pass over the middle and electrifying run for a 72-yard touchdown late in the third quarter of the .

Not the natural showoff, Nicks copped to the plea that Giants safety Antrel Rolle put him up to it. Under the hot lights of the interview room, he removed his dark glasses and casually dispelled the notion of his feeling envious or compelled to succeed in light of being upstaged this season by Cruz.

“I didn’t feel like I had to prove nothing,” he said. “I know what I am capable of. Victor Cruz is a great addition to our offense, and he makes plays when he is called on, and the same with all the other guys.”

When you beat a very good offensive team, 24-2, and outgain it, 442-247, there is no shortage of playmakers, beginning with the quarterback. Though he’ll never ace the audition of the White Swan, Manning woke up a sleepy Giants offense by scrambling for 14 yards on third down before Brandon Jacobs rumbled 34 yards to set up the first touchdown — a leaping 4-yard grab by Nicks in the back of the end zone.

Jacobs, with 92 yards, spearheaded the Giants’ much-maligned ground game. Led by Nicks’s six receptions for 115 yards, Manning spread his 23 completions among eight receivers.

As for the defense, its stop of Matt Ryan and the Falcons from punching out a measly yard at the Giants’ 21 with 4 minutes 21 seconds left in the third quarter begat the Manning short pass to Nicks, who broke free for the 72-yarder.

“It was zone coverage, and I was actually about to sit,” Nicks said, meaning he would get underneath the safety and just wait to see what developed. “But when I saw all the linebackers’ zone-drop out of there, I just tried to get in Eli’s vision.”

It was no surprise that Jason Pierre-Paul helped stuff Ryan and set the stage for Nicks to complete what might have been a symbolic sequence, the rebirth of the Giants as a contender.

The Packers will have much to say about that on Sunday at Green Bay. But the Giants at least have the look of a dangerous team again, with a superior front four anchoring its galvanizing defense; breakaway weapons on the flanks; a capable if not overwhelming running game; and a seasoned quarterback who once upon a time won three playoff games on the road, then triumphed over perfection itself in the .

It is instructive to note that in the years after they scaled two New England mountains, Brady and Belichick, the Giants bade farewell to their most dominant defensive lineman, Michael Strahan. He has clearly been replaced by Pierre-Paul, selected 15th over all in 2010.

They lost the impact receivers Amani Toomer and Plaxico Burress, and General Manager Jerry Reese added Mario Manningham (who caught the Giants’ third touchdown pass Sunday) in 2008, then drafted Nicks in the first round in 2009 before adding Cruz last season.

So a little draft-day credit for Reese is in order. Cruz may be the once-in-a-generation diamond among the undrafted, but here were the Giants on Sunday winning their first postseason game since the Super Bowl four years ago with two of Reese’s last three first-round picks dominating on both sides of the ball.

“We play for a great organization,” said Nicks, in full company-man mode. “They obviously know what they are doing.”

On an overcast day in the Meadowlands, the Giants did enough to make people think they could even have a chance going forward, location notwithstanding.

“All of us have pretty good relationships and we all make plays,” Nicks said.

Ignore any at your own risk.

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Falcons Beat Bucs, 45-24, Clinch NFC’s No. 5 Seed

Julio Jones caught two touchdown passes in a span of 26 seconds, Michael Turner ran for two scores and the Falcons used a team-record 42 first-half points to cruise to a 45-24 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday to clinch the No. 5 seed in the NFC playoffs.

The Falcons (10-6) and Detroit (10-6) are the NFC wild cards. Atlanta, which beat Detroit on Oct. 23, won the tiebreaker with the Lions for the more favorable seeding. The Falcons will play at the winner of Sunday night’s Dallas-New York Giants game in the first round of the playoffs.

“We wanted to play our final regular-season game with a lot of intensity and energy, and I think we did that in all three phases,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said.

Josh Freeman threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in the first half as the Buccaneers (4-12) closed their season with their 10th straight loss, leaving the status of coach Raheem Morris in doubt.

The Falcons led 42-0 when it began resting some of its starters, including quarterback Matt Ryan and Turner, late in the first half.

Tampa Bay, which finished 10-6 last season and started 4-2 this season, is left with its longest losing streak in one season in 34 years. The Buccaneers also lost 10 straight in 1977. They lost 11 straight between the 2008 and ’09 seasons.

Turnovers were a problem for the Buccaneers all season. Freeman began the day tied for the league lead with 19 interceptions before adding three to the dismal total, including one with 1:39 remaining.

Freeman completed 31 of 45 passes for 274 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions.

With Atlanta leading 42-0, Freeman threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Dezmon Briscoe with about 2 minutes remaining in the first half. Freeman threw a 5-yard TD pass to Briscoe in the fourth quarter.

Tampa Bay’s other touchdown came on Elbert Mack’s 40-yard interception return against Falcons’ backup Chris Redman in the third quarter.

Turner ran for 172 yards and two touchdowns, including an 81-yard scoring run late in the first half. The score capped the Falcons’ run of six unanswered touchdowns.

The Falcons led 21-0 after the first quarter and then put the game away with three more touchdowns in the second quarter.

The strong showing was important for the Falcons, who were coming off a 45-16 loss at New Orleans that was the worst loss in four seasons with Smith.

“We had some things we needed to get fixed from the previous game and I’m really proud of the way the guys bounced back,” Smith said.

Ryan was 6 of 9 for 106 yards, including touchdown passes of 17 and 48 yards to Jones in the first quarter.

Rookie Jacquizz Rodgers scored on a 1-yard run for his first career touchdown to start the Falcons’ scoring. Rodgers lost a fumble at the Tampa Bay 2 in the fourth quarter.

After Ryan’s first TD pass to Jones, Dominique Franks’ interception on Tampa Bay’s first down gave the ball back to Atlanta.

On first down from the Buccaneers 48, Ryan again threw to Jones, who fought off safety Tanard Jackson for the catch. Jones then jumped up from the turf, hit cornerback E.J. Biggers with a stiff-arm and then dragged Biggers into the end zone.

Turner had two touchdown runs and Curtis Lofton returned an interception 26 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter.

Matt Bryant kicked a 20-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter after the Buccaneers were stopped on fourth down at their 10.

Turner’s two touchdowns gave him a team-record 50 rushing scores with the Falcons, passing Gerald Riggs’ record of 48.

Roddy White also celebrated a milestone, passing Terance Mathis for the most yards receiving with the Falcons. Mathis had 7,349 yards from 1994-2001. White began Sunday 44 yards behind Mathis and set the mark in the third quarter.

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Falcons Crush Jaguars, 41-14, Improving Playoff Hopes

Matt Ryan threw three touchdown passes in less than three quarters of work, John Abraham had 3 ½ sacks and the Falcons clinched a fourth straight winning season with a 41-14 rout of the visiting on Thursday.

“Hopefully, we can play like we did tonight for the next couple weeks,” Ryan said.

This one was over by halftime. Atlanta (9-5) led by 27-0 when the teams trotted to the locker room. Blaine Gabbert and the shellshocked Jaguars (4-10) were saddled with a net passing total of minus-1 yard, and the Falcons were well on the way to strengthening their hold on an N.F.C. wild-card spot.

Gabbert had one of his worst games in a miserable rookie season, coughing up the ball twice on hits by Abraham. Both fumbles led to Atlanta scores, with defensive tackle Corey Peters scooping up the second one and trotting to the end zone early in the third quarter for a touchdown that ended any thought of the Jaguars getting back in the game.

“It wasn’t just me,” Abraham said. “The whole team was able to get to the quarterback.”

Ryan was 19 of 26 for 224 yards and 3 touchdowns, with a season-high quarterback rating of 137.3. Roddy White caught two of the scoring passes, Julio Jones the other.

Gabbert was 12 of 22 for 141 yards, also throwing an interception to cap a truly awful night of running for his life and making bad decisions. He got most of his yards on a meaningless final drive, hitting Chastin West on a 16-yard touchdown with 59 seconds to go. Jacksonville’s other touchdown came on a blocked punt after trailing, 41-0.

The injury-riddled Jaguars, playing out the season with an interim coach and a new owner, were coming off their best game of the season, having scored 41 straight points in a 41-14 victory over Tampa Bay. But, playing their third game in 11 days, they could not build any momentum toward closing out the season on a high note.

Michael Turner burst off left guard for 15 yards on the first play of the game, and the Falcons were off and running. Ryan capped the opening drive by stepping up to avoid the pressure, flipping a short pass to Jones, then watching the rookie turn on an impressive burst of speed for a 29-yard touchdown.

PLAN FOR TEBOW The New England Patriots say they are preparing for the ’ the way they do for any quarterback — by learning what he does well and what he does poorly and taking advantage of that knowledge.

There’s a big problem, though. Tebow is not like any other quarterback. “He’s a very unique person,” said Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who played with Tebow at Florida. “He’s a leader.”

Tebow has led the Broncos to a 7-1 record in his eight starts since they opened at 1-4. Their 8-5 mark going into Sunday’s home game against the Patriots leads the A.F.C. West.

New England has allowed the most yards in the N.F.L. despite a 10-3 record. The Patriots will have to be disciplined to deal with the scrambling Tebow.

“Anytime you have a quarterback that’s mobile, it definitely is a challenge for a defense,” said Patriots defensive back Nate Jones, a teammate of Tebow’s last season.

BROTHERLY ADVICE Before San Francisco 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh started his preparation for Steelers week, he had an important phone call to make to learn the ins and outs of how to beat Pittsburgh: to Baltimore’s coach and his big brother, John.

The Ravens have won both of their meetings this season against the Steelers in what has evolved into one of the N.F.L.’s fiercest rivalries. And Monday night’s matchup between San Francisco and Pittsburgh has plenty of meaning to Baltimore, which is tied with the Steelers atop the A.F.C. North standings and trying to win the division.

John Harbaugh asked a team official to make sure he was allowed to help his brother with any insight. “I know for a fact a lot of coaches have spent a lot of time talking about us before they play us,” John Harbaugh said. “So I’m sure we’ll try to help him in some way if we can.”

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