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.