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Tensions high as Giants host Falcons in NFC First-Round tilt

Calling somebody a "dirtbag" isn't a very flattering annotation, even if it may be entitled.

New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck didn't seem to mind when he used the unfavorable remark to describe the Atlanta Falcons' offensive line.

"Yeah, we've seen it. We know they have that quote-unquote 'reputation,'" Tuck was quoted as saying in the New York Daily News when asked about the Falcons' style of play. "Most people, you would call them dirtbags.

"But it is what it is. We've got to make sure we do our job and if we are doing our job well. Then they will be upset and they will be trying to do things to get us off our game, and we've got to take that as a compliment."

Tuck and the Giants look forward to hopefully being on their game in Sunday's NFC First-Round Playoff showdown against the Falcons at MetLife Stadium.

The NFC East-champion Giants needed the final regular season game to decide their playoff fate, but earned the conference's fourth seed after handing the division-rival Dallas Cowboys a 31-14 whooping at MetLife Stadium this past Sunday. The Giants ended a two-year playoff drought with the win over Dallas and now will be seeking their first victory in a playoff game since sending New England packing in Super Bowl XLII following a 10-6 record in the 2007 regular season.

The Giants made it back to the playoffs in 2008 before losing in the Divisional Round to rival Philadelphia, then went on a two-year postseason hiatus before claiming the NFC East crown this past week despite a 9-7 ledger. Head coach Tom Coughlin guided his team to three wins in the final four weeks after a four- game slide that could have crushed New York's playoff aspirations.

Coughlin said the past few weeks have been similar to playoff atmospheres.

"I think we have been in playoff games, we have been in playoff games for the last three weeks," Coughlin said Monday. "We are battle-tested in a lot of ways because we have played some really outstanding football teams all down through the second half of the season."

New York will face another outstanding team on Sunday, though running back Brandon Jacobs said he "would not want to face the New York Giants in the playoffs right now." Jacobs may be right, since the Giants have been playing lights-out defense and their offense is averaging 28 points per game over the last five weeks.

The Giants also closed out the regular season strong in 2007 before putting together a big run as the NFC's No. 5 seed en route to the franchise's third Super Bowl title.

The Falcons didn't have quite the year they had intended, finishing second in the NFC South with a 10-6 record just one season removed from capturing a division title and earning the NFC's top seed. Atlanta's home-field advantage in the 2010 playoffs was short-lived, however, after it lost to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers by a 48-21 score in the Divisional Round.

Atlanta sealed up the fifth seed in this year's playoffs with last Sunday's 45-24 win over Tampa Bay, but just couldn't keep up with the New Orleans Saints in its attempt to seize a second NFC South championship in as many years. Streaky play from the defense and ground game nearly prevented Atlanta from capturing a third postseason berth in four years as well, but the ship was finally righted in the past few weeks.

Falcons running back Michael Turner was able to rush for 1,000 yards for a second straight season and third time in the last four years. Head coach Mike Smith recently gave away the Falcons' secret on keeping Turner fresh for the year.

"We've had Michael on a routine where he has not been practicing on Wednesday and sometimes even into Thursday, practicing on a limited basis to keep him fresh, and I think we saw a fresh running back in the ballgame," Smith said after Turner rumbled for a season-high 172 yards and two scores in the season finale versus Tampa Bay. "But it was nice for us knowing that we could control the line of scrimmage in that game and I think, moving forward, that will help us."

The Falcons notched a playoff spot in back-to-back campaigns for the first time in franchise history, but have yet to win a postseason matchup under the current regime. Under Smith, the Falcons have enjoyed four straight winning seasons, and the only thing left is that elusive win in the "second season."

Atlanta, which won eight of its final 11 games to punch its playoff ticket, poses as a tough opponent in this year's postseason and is looking to move on in the playoffs for the first time since reaching the NFC Championship Game back in 2004 under Jim Mora, Jr.

SERIES HISTORY

This will be the first-ever postseason encounter between the Falcons and Giants, with the teams having split 20 previous head-to-head bouts in regular- season play. New York has won the last three meetings in the series, the most recent of which was a 34-31 overtime triumph at Giants Stadium in 2009 behind a 384-yard, three-touchdown performance by Eli Manning. The standout quarterback also led New York to road decisions over Atlanta during both the 2006 (27-14) and 2007 (31-10) campaigns, with the Falcons' last victory over the Giants coming via a 14-10 result at the Meadowlands on Nov. 21, 2004. Atlanta is 5-1 in its last six games as the visitor in this set, however.

Coughlin owns a 5-2 career record against the Falcons, having gone 3-1 during his tenure with New York and 2-1 while at the helm of the Jacksonville Jaguars from 1995-2002. Smith lost his only lifetime matchup against both the Giants and Coughlin as a head coach with his team's 2009 defeat in New Jersey.

Coughlin is 8-7 overall in postseason games and 4-3 with the Giants in such situations, though New York has lost both of its two playoff tests at home under his direction. The Falcons are winless in two postseason tilts under Smith.

WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL

Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan (4177 passing yards, 29 TD, 12 INT) threw for only 186 with a touchdown pass and two interceptions in last season's playoff loss to Green Bay, while Turner (1340 rushing yards, 11 TD) was held to 39 yards and a score on 10 carries as Atlanta compiled only 194 yards of offense in that game. The Falcons will try to attack New York right away in either phase of the game, though their best bet would be through the air since the Giants are 29th in pass defense (255.1 ypg). The offensive line that Tuck dubbed as "dirtbags" will be ready to protect Ryan, who was sacked 26 times in the regular season but only six times in the past seven games. Ryan broke the franchise's season record for passing yards and will need time to find a trio of talented pass catchers in Roddy White (100 receptions, 1296 yards, 8 TD), Julio Jones (54 receptions, 8 TD) and tight end Tony Gonzalez (80 receptions, 7 TD). White and the rookie Jones both had eight touchdown catches, and Gonzalez finished with seven. The O-line also hopes to make some holes for Turner, who has faced the Giants just once in his career and posted 12 yards on seven carries while then a backup to LaDanian Tomlinson in San Diego on Sept. 25, 2005.

Giants Pro-Bowl defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (86 tackles, 16.5 sacks) would like to get to Ryan on every play, but knows that won't be the case. The athletic South Florida product finished fourth in the NFL with 16 1/2 sacks this season and joined Lawrence Taylor and Michael Strahan as the only Giants players to post at least 16 sacks in one year. Tuck (37 tackles, 5 sacks) has some big words to back up against Atlanta's offensive line, but is still a major threat coming off the edge even though he's endured a tough and injury- plagued season. Defensive end Osi Umenyiora (25 tackles, 9 sacks) managed to have a productive campaign even though he played in just nine games this season, and had two sacks against the Cowboys after returning from an ankle sprain that kept him out for four weeks. The Giants will need a strong push up front to bail out a less than-stellar secondary that is just 29th in pass defense, allowing 255.1 yards per game. New York defensive coordinator Perry Fewell knows that Atlanta will try to unleash Turner on his defense, but has linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka (84 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT) to prevent that from happening. Of course Kiwanuka will need some help, but he had five tackles -- two for losses -- and helped limit Cowboys running back Felix Jones to 30 yards rushing on 11 attempts last week. Dallas was held to just 49 yards on the ground against a unit that is allowing 121.2 rushing yards per contest. Cornerback Corey Webster (51 tackles, 6 INT) leads the team with six interceptions.

WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL

New York has had trouble running the football this season due to injuries, specifically to running back Ahmad Bradshaw, and is last in the league with 89.2 rushing yards per game and goes up against an Atlanta defense ranked sixth against the run (97.0 ypg). Bradshaw (659 rushing yards, 9 TD) is now back at full strength, however, and was one of the pieces that helped the Giants clinch the NFC East against the Cowboys. He had a rushing and a receiving touchdown last Sunday night for a Giants offense that accumulated 437 yards. Jacobs (571 rushing yards, 7 TD) and fellow running back D.J. Ware (163 rushing yards, who combined for just 35 yards in the recent win, will see a fair share of touches this weekend as well. Manning (4933 yards, 29 TD, 16 INT) should take credit for leading his team into the playoffs, and his passing-yardage total in 2011 was a franchise-best. Helping him along the way were wideouts Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, with Cruz (82 receptions, 1536 yards, 9 TD) setting a team season record for receiving yards and posting seven performances of 100-plus yards in 15 games. He did not play in the season opener at Washington. Nicks (76 receptions, 1192 yards, 7 TD) scored a touchdown versus Dallas and can also stretch the field for New York's fifth-ranked pass attack (295.9 ypg). The offensive line could tighten up, however, since Manning has been sacked two or more times in each of the past three games (seven total).

The Falcons' defense was the main reason for a playoff collapse against a Packers team that racked up 442 yards of offense in last January's rout, with quarterback Aaron Rodgers finishing with three touchdown passes and 366 yards through the air. Manning will try to exploit Atlanta's 20th-rated pass defense and has been playing very well this season. Falcons defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder should expect New York to unleash a pass attack, but that will be hard to do if Manning is facing constant heat up front. Veteran end John Abraham (35 tackles, 9.5 sacks) is the best candidate to do just that and finished the regular season with a flourish, recording 4 1/2 sacks in the last three weeks. Middle linebacker and leading tackler Curtis Lofton (147 tackles, 2 INT) and outside starter Sean Weatherspoon (115 tackles, 4 sacks) will have bulls-eyes on their backs Sunday, as their play will arguably make or break the defense. Lofton racked up 14 tackles in a blowout win over Tampa Bay last Sunday and will need to continue that intensity throughout the postseason. It's a shame for the Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes is not a full strength after just coming back from knee surgery, but he could still make a difference Sunday with his closing speed. Cruz is enjoying a breakout campaign and Nicks is a big target who could create problems, so safeties Thomas DeCoud (86 tackles, 4 INT) and William Moore (54 tackles, 2 INT) must play sharp in coverage.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Some may argue that special teams is not part of the three phases of football, but those doubters and non-believers need only to witness players such as Mel Gray, Brian Mitchell and Devin Hester to realize its importance. Giants reserve wideout Devin Thomas is expected to handle the team's kickoff returns and averaged 24.3 yards per runback on 25 chances his season. Ware can also do the job, but it will be Thomas trying to set up New York's offense in great field position. Cornerback Aaron Ross is the Giants' main punt returner and averaged just 7.1 yards on 14 returns during the regular season.

Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes made 19-of-24 field goal tries in the regular season and was perfect on all 43 PAT attempts. His longest field goal of the season was a 61-yarder. Punter Steve Weatherford boomed 82 punts for 3,745 yards for an average of 45.7 yards per kick. He recorded just six touchbacks and landed 25 punts inside the 20-yard line.

Atlanta will try to penetrate New York's coverage units on kickoffs with speedster Eric Weems, who averaged 23.5 yards on 24 returns this season. He also handled punt return duties and racked up 315 yards on 32 tries for an average of 9.8 yards per return. Weems had a 102-yard kickoff return for a score against Green Bay in last year's Divisional Round of the playoffs as well. He did not produce any touchdowns this season, but set Ryan and the offense up in healthy field position several times.

Falcons kicker Matt Bryant has one of the strongest legs in the league, though he should be cautious of the winds at the Meadowlands. He made 27-of-29 field goal attempts and his longest of the season was a 51-yard boot. Bryant was also perfect on all 45 of his PAT tries. Rookie Matt Bosher averaged 42.7 yards per punt on 70 attempts in his NFL debut.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

The Giants and Falcons have never met in the postseason, so this showdown at the Meadowlands should be an interesting one. Atlanta has been playing much better across the offensive line since a slow start and hopes that trend will continue in a do-or-die situation this weekend. Limiting turnovers will be key for both teams, as could New York's success against Atlanta under Coughlin. It will be nothing new for the Giants to face both a top quarterback and running back on the same day, and the coaching staff is usually prepared for such matters. Coughlin just tied Bill Parcells with his fifth postseason appearance as head coach of the Giants, and Parcells guided the franchise to two Super Bowl titles during his reign while Coughlin begins his quest to match the former by earning another ring. Atlanta should have no trouble moving the football, but stopping the Giants' offense will be an issue. In the end, Manning will show why he was named to the Pro Bowl with at least two touchdown passes.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Giants 26, Falcons 19