DESCRIBED BY TEAMMATES AS AN ASSASSIN IN THE RUN-UP to this playoff game, Eli Manning delivered the kill shot in the fourth quarter of the Giants' 24--2 drubbing of the Falcons at MetLife Stadium. With 9:58 left Manning lofted a ball down the middle of the field, hitting Mario Manningham in full stride for a 27-yard touchdown as the wideout split double coverage in the end zone for the game's final score.
It was the third TD pass of the day for Manning, but there was much more than Eli to this win: With its suddenly effective rushing attack pounding out a season-high 172 yards, and with a resurgent defense twice snuffing out the Falcons' offense on fourth-and-one, New York played in a way that's reminiscent of the team's championship run at the end of the 2007 season. "In terms of intensity and hitting our stride, it's right on par," said linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka, a holdover from that Super Bowl team.
By winning their first playoff game since upending the unbeaten Patriots in Super Bowl XLII, the Giants finally showed themselves to be a complete team after relying on Manning's arm for most of 2011. The defense held Atlanta to 247 yards of offense, limited running back Michael Turner to 41 yards and set the tone on the first play of the second quarter. On fourth-and-inches at New York's 24-yard line, in a scoreless game, the Falcons went for a first down instead of a field goal, only to have quarterback Matt Ryan's sneak attempt stuffed by tackle Linval Joseph and linebacker Michael Boley.
Later, with just over four minutes to play in the third quarter—and trailing 10--2—Atlanta went for it on fourth-and-one from the New York 21. Ryan again was stopped for no gain, this time by defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul and linebacker Chase Blackburn. "We made a statement that you can't run the ball on us," Pierre-Paul said. "It's disrespectful for them to go for it, but you see the outcome."
Three plays after that second stop the Falcons found themselves in a deep hole when Manning connected with Hakeem Nicks on a short pass over the middle that turned into a 72-yard touchdown and a 17--2 lead.
And that running game. The Giants averaged 5.5 yards per carry while Brandon Jacobs (92 rushing yards) and Ahmad Bradshaw (63) each broke a run for at least 30 yards. "We're the toughest team in the league," Bradshaw declared afterward.
The measure of that toughness will be determined next weekend when the Giants travel to top-seeded Green Bay. But Big Blue won't be a complete long shot, especially with All-Pro defensive end Osi Umenyiora back. Umenyiora, who missed December with an ankle injury, returned for the regular-season finale against the Cowboys and had two sacks. He picked up another on Sunday.
"The fourth-down stops were just outstanding; those plays really inspired everybody," coach Tom Coughlin said. "If we continue to play defense like that, we can make ourselves heard in this tournament."
At the very least, they already have the Packers' attention.