The Atlanta Falcons may have been looking ahead for this week's showdown with the defending champion New York Giants, but it's still no excuse to fall victim to the underachieving Carolina Panthers.
The NFC South-champion Falcons have a tough road ahead if they intend on capturing homefield advantage throughout the playoffs and will need a win Sunday over the Giants and some help to accomplish the feat.
Atlanta, which suffered a 30-20 road loss to Cam Newton and the Panthers, has the advantage this week because it will be playing in the climate-controlled Georgia Dome. The Falcons are 6-0 at home this season and are averaging 24 ppg as the host. Head coach Mike Smith is 32-6 at home and quarterback Matt Ryan owns a 32-4 record in the friendly confines of the Dome.
Ryan, though, was sacked twice and threw an interception in Sunday's loss at Carolina, finishing 34-of-49 for 342 yards. Ryan, who passed for a season-low 165 yards with a TD in a win the week before versus New Orleans, had an 11- yard touchdown pass to Julio Jones and a late rally fell short.
Falcons veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez had 61 yards on eight catches, and was disappointed in how the offense played, especially after being held scoreless in the first two quarters.
"Ridiculous. No doubt about it. We can't leave our defense out there like we did, and we've got to put points up," Gonzalez said. "We're too good of an offense. We've got too many players. Too much talent."
Gonzalez is right about having enough talent, but falling behind 23-0 before a mini comeback hasn't resembled Falcon football this season. The loss dropped Atlanta to 11-2 and 7-2 against teams from the NFC. On the verge of locking up homefield advantage, the Falcons have three tough opponents remaining on the schedule in New York, Detroit and Tampa Bay.
The Falcons, who need a win and losses by Green Bay and San Francisco for homefield advantage, are hoping Sunday's setback was just an aberration.
"It better be a bump in the road if we're the team we think we are," Gonzalez added. "I can hear them right now. They're getting off the bandwagon. I can hear them jumping off, but that's how it goes. Looking at our history, a lot of people are going to say, 'See? I told you,' or whatever.
"We're a good football team ... no doubt about it. And we're going to play better, because we have to. We're going to get back and play the way we have, but it's up to us to have a good week of practice and come out against a very good football team against the Giants and get this thing rolling."
New York couldn't be a hotter opponent for the Falcons after trampling Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints 52-27 at MetLife Stadium.
After the Saints grabbed a 7-0 lead when Elbert Mack intercepted an Eli Manning pass and rumbled 73 yards for a score, Manning, rookie running back David Wilson and the New York defense took over. Manning, who was intercepted twice, finished with a season-high four TD passes and Wilson had a breakout performance, rushing for 100 yards and two scores, while evening the score at 7-7 with a 97-yard kickoff return for a score.
With Ahmad Bradshaw nicked up and finishing with 33 yards on 11 carries, Giants coach Tom Coughlin was asked Monday if Wilson's performance surprised him.
"No. Didn't surprise me at all. He's been growing and building towards this opportunity. If you watched last night and looked real close, he did a nice job picking up a weak side safety blitz," Coughlin said. "So he did prove again that he understood the particular protection we were in and how he was to react with his responsibility and did it well."
Manning wasn't sacked versus the Saints and has been taken down just twice over the previous three games. Manning's top receiving weapon, Victor Cruz, has turned it on the last two games with back-to-back 100-yard efforts. Cruz had 121 yards and a touchdown, eclipsing the 1,000-yard receiving mark in each of his first two seasons. Cruz helped the Giants amass 487 yards of offense.
The Giants have won two of three games since losing consecutive matchups with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, and sit one game ahead of both Washington and Dallas for the NFC East lead. New York, which is 7-3 against the NFC and is assured of the eighth consecutive non-losing season, controls its own destiny with three games left Atlanta, Baltimore and Philadelphia.
But the Giants have to get by a talented Falcons team that hit a bump in the road last week. The Giants defeated the Falcons 24-2 in the first round of the playoffs a season ago en route to their fourth Super Bowl title. Including that playoff win, New York has won the last four meetings with Atlanta, losers in each of the last seven as the host in this series.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
It's been a bend-but-don't-break season for the Giants' defense. With a pass rush that instills fear in most quarterbacks, the Giants are still experiencing trouble stopping opposing offenses. However, New York is eighth in points allowed (20.8 ppg) this season, so Perry Fewell's stop unit has been able to turn it up a notch when teams penetrate enemy territory.
Drew Brees is one of the more prolific passers in the game and managed to throw for 354 yards and a touchdown. Brees was picked off twice for a Saints offense that racked up 487 yards. Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora had the only sack of the day for New York, which is 22nd in rushing yards allowed (123.3 ypg), 25th in total yards (376.2 ypg) and 27th in passing yards permitted (252.8). That won't match up well against Ryan and the Falcons.
Giants defensive end Justin Tuck doesn't seem to be worried.
"We've played pretty well, together-type football," Tuck said. "(In losses to) Washington, Cincinnati, we didn't and you see the results. So I think for us we've just got to just take a step back and look at how we can play when we're together and we're all in and that should be encouraging for us going on to these next three."
Some weapons the Giants will be forced to face this weekend are Jones, Gonzalez, Roddy White, Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers. Turner has scored a rushing touchdown in each of the last four games and has eight on the season. White had nine catches for a game-high 117 yards with one touchdown against the Panthers and has recorded seven 100-yard games this season. White is one 100-yard game shy of tying his own franchise record of eight set in 2008. Jones needs three yards to record his first career 1,000-yard season.
Ryan has eclipsed the 300-yard passing mark seven times in 2012 and has thrown multiple touchdowns in eight games this season. Atlanta improved to 29-7 when Ryan has two or more TD passes in a game. "Matty Ice" has won 10 in a row at home and has a 100-plus rating in the last 19 at home.
Atlanta's defense is in the same boat as New York's as it will square off with Manning, Cruz, a re-charged Wilson, and several others. The Falcons are 16th against the pass (234.9 ypg), 20th in yards allowed (361.9 ypg) and 23rd in rushing defense (127.0 ypg). However, much like the Giants, Atlanta doesn't give up that many points as evidenced by its fifth-place rank (19.9 ppg).
The Giants have had a 100-yard receiver and a 100-yard rusher in consecutive games thanks to Cruz and Wilson. Cruz and Bradshaw turned the trick in a loss at Washington. Of course, Manning is coming off a four-TD game -- the seventh of his career -- and tied Y.A. Tittle for the franchise record.
Smith was asked Monday if this week's preparation for the Giants would be easier since Carolina does similar things on defense.
"That was a good front four that we faced yesterday. They have a very similar style in terms of defense, so for our offense, yes, it will help us," Smith said. "On the flip side of it, it's two completely different types of offenses that we'll be facing. That's a very unique offense that we faced yesterday, and we didn't do a good job of slowing it down."
If Newton alone can lead Carolina past the Falcons, then it could be a long afternoon for the NFC South champions.
There are several intriguing matchups on the NFL slate this week and Sunday's NFC showdown between the Falcons and Giants ranks near the top. With home- field advantage on the line for Atlanta and New York hoping to inch closer to another division crown, it wouldn't be a surprise if this contest goes down to the wire. With two prolific offenses on display, it will come down to who makes the most mistakes. Atlanta needs a win to rejuvenate its fan base and will get it behind a near-perfect game from Ryan. Plus, Ryan has better targets than Manning and is playing on the Dome's fast track.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 27, Giants 24