Little did anyone even remotely intimate that the outcome might center around the Giants tackling Ryan as a runner.
But in a fairly mundane opening-round contest, one in which the Giants didn't dominate until the second half, it was New York's stalwart interior defense on a pair of failed fourth-and-1 quarterback sneaks by Ryan that proved to be the critical plays in a 24-2 victory. The win, New York's first postseason triumph since its upset victory over New England in Super Bowl XLII and first ever at MetLife Stadium, will send the Giants to Lambeau Field to meet top-seeded Green Bay next week.
"In the playoffs, you have to understand the intensity, the urgency, and really the physicality of it all," New York defensive end/linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka said after the game. "And short-yardage plays kind of do all those things. You have to want it more than the other guy ... and we did."
The Giants' defensive front, which had registered 11 sacks its past two games, got to Ryan twice on Sunday. And the unit spearheaded an effort that limited the stagnant Atlanta offense to 247 yards, while keeping the Falcons out of the end zone and without a red zone possession until Atlanta's final series of the game. But it was the two defensive stands on fourth down that fueled the win.
Said Giants coach Tom Coughlin in discussing the fourth-and-1 stops: "That really inspires everyone, to be honest with you."
The first stuff of Ryan came on the first play of the second quarter, with the game scoreless, and the ball at the New York 24-yard line. Ryan went right up the middle and was stacked up by tackle Linval Joseph and weak-side linebacker Michael Boley, a former Atlanta starter. Three plays after the stop, Giants' quarterback Eli Manning was called for intentional grounding in the end zone for a safety, providing the Falcons their lone lead of the afternoon, at 2-0.
The second stop was in the third quarter, with Ryan trying over left guard from the New York 21-yard line, and being stymied by end Jason Pierre-Paul and also middle linebacker Chase Blackburn. The Giants led at the time by only 10-2.
They responded to the stop by going 79 yards in three plays — the score coming on a 72-yard pass to Hakeem Nicks, with the wide receiver flashing Victor Cruz-like run-after-catch ability — to take a 17-2 lead and essentially turn out the lights on the No. 5-seeded Falcons.
"When your defense makes those kind of plays," said tailback Ahmad Bradshaw, "it jacks everybody up. You see the emotions kind of swell up on your sideline ... and the air kind of go out of the other guys."
The stops gave the Giants' defense three quarterback-sneak stands on fourth-and-1 plays the past two weeks. In the season finale victory over Dallas last week, basically a play-in game for the NFC East title, New York stopped Dallas quarterback Tony Romo on a fourth-quarter effort from the Giants' 10-yard line.
Prior to those plays, the Giants had permitted opponents four conversions on nine fourth-and-1 snaps. But two of those came on passes. Twice in the first 15 games of the regular season, the Giants stopped fourth-and-1quarterback sneaks. In addition to the fourth-down plays Sunday, the New York defense stopped tailback Michael Turner on a third-and-1 in the third quarter. Conversely, on their first scoring drive of the game, which culminated in a 4-yard touchdown pass to Nicks that gave the Giants a 7-2 edge, New York converted a fourth-and-1 on a run off right tackle by tailback Brandon Jacobs.
"Those are all huge plays in terms of momentum swings," Blackburn said. "I really think we got a lot of confidence last week with the (Romo) stop."
As indicated earlier, much of the pregame assessments analyzed the relative strength of the Giants' outside defensive linemen, primarily the end rotation of Justin Tuck, Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora and, to some extent, Kiwanuka. But the heart of the New York defense — particularly tackles Linval Joseph, Chris Canty, and Rocky Bernard — absolutely dominated the Falcons' inside blockers. Bernard had one of the Giants' two sacks on a straight inside rush, and Umenyiora got the other on an inside move.
Surprisingly, Giants' defensive coordinator Perry Fewell utilized his "NASCAR" pass rush, featuring four ends across the front, unofficially on only a dozen snaps. He did move Tuck and often reserve end Dave Tollefson inside against the Atlanta guards on occasion. But, more often than not, it was just a matter of the New York tackles being more physical than the Falcons' three inside blockers.
"They're a really physical team," acknowledged Tuck, who during the week had called into question the extracurricular blocking habits of the Atlanta linemen. "But I thought our (tackles) set the tone and surprised them a little bit."
The Atlanta offense, which managed only 14 first downs and registered just 14 of 55 snaps on the New York side of the field until its final possession, seemed to be in shock, and out of synch, most of the day. Ryan completed only 24-of-41 attempts for 199 yards, and a puny passer rating of 71.1. Ryan didn't turn the ball over — he'd had four interceptions and two lost fumbles in his previous postseason games — but fell to 0-3 in the playoffs. Ryan's quarterback rating in the three losses is just 71.2. His regular-season rating, in 62 games, is 88.4.
The loss left Ryan at just 17-17 on the road, counting playoff appearances. He is, with postseason games, 26-5 at the Georgia Dome. The defeat is certain to elicit questions again about Ryan's ability to win "big" games. But he wasn't helped at all by the ultra-conservative play-calling of coordinator Mike Mularkey — the Falcons used their potent no-huddle look for only 10 snaps until their final series of the game — and the failures of his line.
"Disappointing again," said Ryan, whose unit managed only two possessions of more than six plays, and just one of more than three first downs. "What can you say? On the sneaks, I've got to do a better job of finding the crease. I didn't do it. But they're a really strong team."
Indicative of the Giants' superiority upfront on both sides of the ball, the New York ground game pounded out 172 yards, including a 34-yard burst by Jacobs and a 30-yarder from Bradshaw. Both came off the right side on plays where Atlanta end John Abraham had flipped to the left side. The Falcons had only 64 yards, just 41 of it (on 15 carries) by tailback Michael Turner, and a 3.0-yard average.
Arguably the backbreaker in the game came on Nicks' long catch-and-run, which gave the Giants a 17-2 lead, and which accentuated a problem that the Atlanta secondary suffered much of the year. The Falcons allowed 12 pass plays of 40 or more yards this season and only four defenses surrendered more.
Still, it was the fourth-down plays that were most critical.
"There are always going to be two, three, four plays that you look back on," said Atlanta coach Mike Smith, who was lambasted by Falcons fans when the team failed on a key fourth-and-1 run in an overtime loss to New Orleans on Nov. 13. "Those were certainly two plays we'll look back on.
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Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.