Giants' head coach Jim Fassel delivers any number of speeches to his team each week, but the one he laid on them Wednesday morning was probably a first for the season.
"I warned them," he said, "that this next game represents a 'trap game' for us, and I talked about that with the team. We just can't expect to come in on our home field and think we're going to win. The Atlanta Falcons are 1-7 and they are on a seven-game losing streak, but so what? We're only 4-4, we could be in their position, or something close to it, ourselves."
The Giants are playing at .500 based on a lucky break in their overtime victory over the New York Jets last Sunday, a game in which the Jets' special teams, and not the Giants' unit, for a change, committed a huge mistake.
The Jets had the chance to win it in overtime on a Doug Brien field goal. Granted, it would have been a 51-yarder, but Brien has the leg and the capability or else he wouldn't be on the roster. But instead the kicking team allowed the seconds to fritter away, and suddenly the holder, punter Dan Stryzinski, yelled at the center to snap the ball. It caught Brien by surprise, too, and he had to rush his steps up to the ball since it had been snapped even before he had the chance to go through his setting up routine.
"We have been there and done things like that," Fassel said. "Do I feel sorry for them? No. Do I sympathize with Herm (Jets' head coach Herman Edwards)? Sure I do."
So now the Giants, still the best bet to capture the weak NFC East in the minds of a few, are 4-4 facing a bad Atlanta team, one that might be in some sort of inner turmoil because superstar quarterback Michael Vick says he isn't ready to play when head coach Dan Reeves (former Giants' head coach, too) says he feels as though Vick could play.
"No matter who we play from this point on," Fassel said, "we have to approach every game feeling that if we don't play well we are going to lose. We have to take the game from every team we play. We can't expect anybody to give us anything. This is not a team (the Falcons) that we can just point at and expect to beat."
Fassel may get another break in that defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin, who missed last week's game with a high ankle sprain, may be ready to play ahead of schedule. "If he can play, then he will play," Fassel said. "Now is when everybody has to step up and do something extra. We have just got to eliminate the kind of mistakes that cost us at least two games."
Those were the 35-32 overtime loss to Dallas and the 14-10 loss to Philadelphia. In both cases it was the special teams that messed up, botching a knockout with 11 seconds left to give Dallas possession on its 40, and allowing Brian Westbrook of the Eagles to return a punt 84 yards for the winning touchdown with 77 seconds remaining.
SERIES HISTORY: This will be the 16th meeting between the teams, and the Falcons hold a slim 8-7 lead. The Giants have won four of the last six games, but were upset last season with Doug Johnson filling in for superstar Michael Vick, and this time it will be Kurt Kittner, since Vick is injured again and has missed the entire season thus far.
Atlanta won five of the first six meetings, and has played the Giants in three different "home stadiums" -- Yankee Stadium, the Yale Bowl and Giants Stadium.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
--The Falcons are 29th in the NFL in overall offense and 32d (dead last) in total defense. They are also next to last in the NFC in turnovers with a minus-8 net difference; the Giants, who have gained five in that category in the last two weeks, are now minus-3.
--Giants' QB Kerry Collins leads the NFL in attempts (333), completions (194) and yardage gained (2,185). He has finally managed more TD passes than interceptions by the slim margin of 11 to 10.
--RB Tiki Barber is on pace to gain 1,347 yards this season; he is currently averaging 85.8 per game which would be 14 yards lower than his career high. TE Jeremy Shockey and WR Ike Hilliard are tied for team receiving leadership with 45 catches each, but the yardage gained with receptions lead belongs to WR Amani Toomer, who has turned his 33 catches into 660 yards. The Giants have gained an average of 372.3 yards per game, which includes 264.5 per game passing.
--The Giants have 27 sacks through eight games and had only 37 all last season. DE Michael Strahan has nine sacks, seven in the last three games. Strahan also leads in forced fumbles with three. The Giants have scored 21 times in 27 red zone opportunities (12 TDs, nine FGs), while opponents have turned 22 chances into 20 scoring plays (10 TDs, 10 FGs).
--With the probability that CB Will Peterson (fractured vertebra) is lost for the remainder of the regular season, the Giants may have found a capable backup in rookie Frank Walker, whose first game two weeks ago in Minnesota resulted in his first career interception as well as the first pick of the season against Viking QB Daunte Culpepper.
--At the moment, he has become the nickel back (Ralph Brown moved into LCB to replace Peterson) but he could earn a start soon. "He has great presence and awareness," said head coach Jim Fassel, "more so than you might expect from a rookie." Walker was the third of three sixth round picks, a supplemental pick at that.
--The Falcons are one of four teams the Giants will play this year with head coaches pulled from their ranks. That includes Dallas (Bill Parcells), New England (Bill Belichick, defensive coordinator), Carolina (John Fox, defensive coordinator) and Reeves (head coach 1993-96). Reeves was 31-33 in his four seasons with the Giants.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I was just hoping I'd catch it so I wouldn't look like a total idiot." -- Giants' head coach Jim Fassel, when asked what he was thinking when he threw his call chart clipboard into the air after the first missed FG in OT last Sunday. He did catch it, by the way.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
It might be long overdue, but this week the Giants are going to attempt to match LCB Will Allen with the best receiver on the field (in this case, Atlanta's Peerless Price) on every play. The mismatches created last week by the Jets' flopping of WR Santana Moss, and a similar ploy by the Vikings the week before with Randy Moss, convinced defensive coordinator Johnnie Lynn that Ralph Brown, the replacement for the injured Will Peterson at RCB, is not up to the task on man-to-man coverage.
It has also been speculated that Lynn might try to find more minutes for strong-side LB Brandon Short, who had 14 tackles, two forced fumbles, a sack and a recovered fumble last week. But Short (6-3, 255) isn't fast enough to be used in the nickel package and the other two starting LBs, Mike Barrow and Dhani Jones, are ahead of him in that respect.
Expect to see more of the "empty backfield" formation the Giants used successfully against the Jets last week. It leaves QB Kerry Collins alone, with five receivers spread across the field (WRs Amani Toomer, Ike Hilliard and Tim Carter; TE Jeremy Shockey; RB Tiki Barber). It might even work better vs. Atlanta since the Falcons don't generate much pass rush these days.
--DT Cornelius Griffin (high ankle sprain) is still listed as questionable but there is a better chance that he'll play this week. "I guess it's possible," he said. "I don't know now and I probably won't know until game time."
--DT Lance Legree, Griffin's replacement, is down 30 pounds from last season's playing weight (he is now 285) and would continue to start if Griffin can't make it back.
He will get occasional breaks by the use of first round draft pick William Joseph.
--DE Osi Umenyiora, the second round draft pick, is working himself into more playing time lately, and may be used significantly more on certain passing.
--Reserve FS Johnnie Harris (hamstring) is listed as questionable and in his place for nickel and dime packages the Giants will use reserve CB Kato Serwanga or reserve SS Ryan Clark.
--FB Jimmy Finn was used as the other deep back on KO and punt returns last week, not the fleet Delvin Joyce, because head coach Jim Fassel wanted to give return specialist Brian Williams "more muscle for that first block." Maybe that's the reason Mitchell has had a sub par season so far, having been signed as an UFA to spice up the return production.
GAME PLAN: The objective for the Giants when they play the Falcons is simply to play their game. "When we bring our 'A' game," says WR Amani Toomer, "we never get blown out.
Chances are we win when we are playing at the top of our game."
The offense is going to attempt to feast on an injured and inexperienced secondary while the rebuilt O-line looks for a break of sorts against a defensive front seven that hasn't performed well at all.
The Giants will attempt to isolate Toomer and WR Ike Hilliard on the Atlanta corners, Tod McBride and Juran Bolden, while TE Jeremy Shockey may try to capitalize on rookie SS Bryan Scott. Defensively, simply playing the way they did last week vs. the Jets should pay off handsomely. Atlanta is going to start Kurt Kittner at quarterback while superstar Michael Vick takes longer to recover from his fractured right fibula (exhibition season) than might have been expected.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Giants' LCB Will Allen, definitely the team's best cover corner with the loss of Will Peterson, will be flipped to take advantage of his ability to cover the opponent's best WR -- in this case, Peerless Price. "I'm not going to lay it out, for obvious reasons," Fassel said, "but yes, we are going to try to keep Will close to their best receiver."
LDE Michael Strahan, with nine sacks (and seven in the last four games), goes up against ORT Todd Weiner, a six-year veteran who has achieved journeyman status.
Strahan is known for lulling a tackle into a false sense of security with slow, easy moves until he suddenly explodes. "It is an honor," Weiner said, sarcastically, "to play against one of the best defensive ends in the league."
--The Giants' TE Jeremy Shockey against Atlanta's rookie SS, Bryan Scott, and inside LBs Keith Brooking and Keith Newman. Shockey has excelled against better competition and the Falcons' pass defense has floundered all season.
--Giants' WRs Ike Hilliard and Amani Toomer, both with productive if not spectacular seasons, get to go against corners Tod McBride and Juran Bolden. If head coach Dan Reeves allows those to drop into man-to-man coverage, both WRs could have big days.
INJURY IMPACT: Giants' DT Cornelius Griffin (high ankle sprain) missed last week's game but "he has a chance" according to Fassel. If he plays, that will stiffen the defense vs. the run, and Griffin against RG Kynan Forney (strained quad) or Martin Bibla could be a mismatch.
Other than that, Fassel said he is "concerned" that reserve safety Johnnie Harris (hamstring) may not make it. Others listed as probable should all play, including Shockey, Umenyiora and DE Kenny Holmes.
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