EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - All the missing pieces - defense and a running game - are aligning at the right time for Eli Manning and the New York Giants. And just in time to play the Packers.
After routing the Atlanta Falcons, 24-2, yesterday in the NFC wild-card game, the Giants head to Green Bay next weekend, a place where they will need all the help they can muster.
Manning carried the Giants (10-7) for much of the season, hoping the defense would get stingy, the pass rush would materialize, and the running game would get on track. Now, all of that is happening.
“A great mix of run and pass and these guys have a great understanding of what our offense is,’’ Manning said of the help he’s receiving. “If we can get that run game going like we did in the second half, that opens up a lot of windows.’’
And if the defense remains impenetrable, watch out.
“If we can play defense like that, we will continue to make ourselves heard in this tournament,’’ coach Tom Coughlin said.
Manning punctuated his best pro season by throwing for three touchdowns and scrambling for a 14-yard gain that woke up New York’s offense in its first postseason victory since its Super Bowl upset of undefeated New England four years ago. Next up is as big a challenge: the defending champion Packers (15-1), who won here, 38-35, in December.
“We know they are a good team,’’ Manning said. “We played them tough here, did some good things here, we scored some points. We know offensively we are going to have to play strong, score some points.’’
The team that couldn’t run the ball will be sprinting there, bringing along a defense the Packers actually might fear. Not to mention the passing offense led by Manning, who hooked up on a 72-yard catch and run by Hakeem Nicks in the third quarter that put away the inept Falcons (10-7). Manning also connected on a 4-yard TD with Nicks in the second quarter and a 27-yard TD throw to Mario Manningham in the fourth quarter that finished it off.
The Giants’ last postseason trip to frigid Lambeau Field was a 23-20 overtime victory for the NFC Championship two weeks before they upset the Patriots.
“Cold, I remember that. I remember Coach Coughlin’s face. I remember [tackle] David Diehl sweating and it froze on his hair and he had icicles on his hair,’’ defensive end Justin Tuck said. “And I remember us winning.
“Hopefully, we can go back there and do it again.’’
The tempo in the first playoff game at MetLife Stadium was set by New York’s defense, which never allowed Atlanta to get going, and by the league’s lowest-ranked rushing game, which ran for a season-high 172 yards, 92 by Brandon Jacobs and 63 by Ahmad Bradshaw. The Giants averaged 5.5 yards a carry, 2 yards more than in the regular season.
For all of Jacobs’s and Bradshaw’s success, it was Manning’s escape and 14-yard dash on third down in the second quarter that got the Giants rolling. Jacobs soon broke a 34-yard run, and Manning hit Nicks on a post pattern to put the Giants up, 7-2.
“I don’t think anyone is game-planning for me to run the ball,’’ Manning said, “but obviously there were a couple of situations where you have to do it. I am not scared of running to get a few yards.’’
The Giants never really had to look back as the Falcons bumbled their way to their third straight playoff loss under coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan.
“They did a great job of defending us, especially in the second half,’’ veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “That shouldn’t happen to a team like we have. We’re a lot better than this.’’
New York was aided greatly by Atlanta’s penchant for gambling on fourth downs - and failing. Twice the Giants stymied the Falcons on fourth and 1 as Ryan’s sneaks went nowhere. The defense also stopped Michael Turner, supposedly the most effective runner on the field, on third and inches late in the third quarter.
“That really inspired everybody, to be honest with you,’’ Coughlin said. “Those plays that our defense made really inspired everybody.’’
Atlanta missed on a fourth-down try in overtime that cost the Falcons a game against New Orleans during the season. While they negated New York’s recently revitalized pass rush for much of the day, the Falcons couldn’t gain any traction on the ground, being held to 64 yards rushing.
“Our defense played great, kept us in the lead,’’ Manning said.
Other than some sporadic movement, Atlanta’s offense was incompetent - particularly in short yardage.
“It’s less than a yard, less than half of a yard. It’s a play we go through all the time,’’ Smith said. “I felt it was the right play both times, but we didn’t execute. We should be able to move the ball there.’’
Both offenses sputtered in the first half with an assortment of penalties, drops, and poor throws.
When the Falcons wheeled out the no-huddle offense, though, they marched from their 10 to a fourth and 1 at the New York 24. On the first play of the second quarter, Ryan was stacked up on his sneak.
But it turned out positively for the Falcons anyway.
Giants guard Chris Snee was called for holding, and from his 13, Manning was pressured back into the end zone by James Sanders. He threw the ball away to avoid the sack, resulting in a safety.
New York had its own fourth-and-inches run on its first touchdown drive. Jacobs ran over safety Thomas DeCoud on the play from the Atlanta 6.
Nicks caught his post pattern over Dominique Franks, the fill-in for injured cornerback Brent Grimes, to make it 7-2.