(5) ATLANTA (10-6) at (4) NEW YORK GIANTS (9-7), 1 p.m. ET, FOX
Giants DE Justin Tuck never called the Falcons offensive linemen "dirtbags," but he did say "most people" would call them that.
"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 said. "But in the same sense you've got to protect yourself."
The Falcons have to protect Matt Ryan if they hope to spring the upset at MetLife Stadium. Tuck and the Giants finished tied for the third in the league with 48 sacks and they feature a formidable pass rush trio at defensive end with Jason Pierre-Paul (16.5 sacks), Osi Umenyiora (nine) and Tuck (five).
Ryan is 43-19 as a starter in his first four pro seasons, but he is looking for his first playoff win. The Boston College product, who was selected No. 3 overall in the 2008 draft, could get some motivation from looking across the sideline at Giants QB Eli Manning.
Manning, selected No. 1 overall out of Mississippi in 2004, lost his first two playoff games with Big Blue before a memorable championship run in 2007. After qualifying for a wild card, the G-Men won three consecutive road games and then upset the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII as Manning was named MVP for his effort.
The Giants claimed the NFC East largely due to Manning. He had a fantastic season, throwing for 4,933 yards while completing 61 percent of his passes with 29 TDs and 16 INTs. Victor Cruz (82 receptions, 1,536 yards, 18.7 avg., nine TDs) and Hakeem Nicks (76-1,192-15.7-7) became a dynamic duo as the pass offense ranked fifth in the NFL. A team known for its rushing attack actually finished the year ranked 32nd (89.2 yards/game) in football.
Can the Falcons bring the heat to Manning? They finished tied for 19th in sacks with 33 as their pass defense ranked 20th overall at 236.6 yards per game. Mike Smith's Falcons ranked sixth against the run, but they have to be geared up to stop an aerial assault.
While Ryan quietly had a solid season as well while throwing for 4,177 yards, completing 61 percent of his passes for 29 TDs and 12 INTs, the Falcons showcased more balance with Michael Turner in the backfield. Turner rushed for 1,340 yards and 11 TDs, and the 5'10", 247-pounder is a load to bring down.
The Giants' defensive rankings were below average across the board. They ranked 25th in scoring defense (25 points/game), 27th in yards allowed (376.4), 29th in pass yards (255.1) and 19th in rush yards (121.2). But they've regained confidence of late, holding the Jets and the Cowboys to 14 points apiece in Weeks 16 and 17 as they racked up 11 sacks.
The Giants and the Falcons have never faced off against each other in the playoffs. Overall this NFC East-NFC South rivalry is knotted at 10-10, with the Giants having won the last three, including 2009 at the old Meadowlands stadium by 34-31 in overtime.
New York's NFC representative has a 20-24 all-time mark in the NFL's second season and has claimed three Super Bowls along with seven championships. Their last playoff visit was 2008, their last win in the aforementioned SBXLII.
The Birds got bounced out in the divisional round last January, getting trounced at home by the Green Bay Packers, 48-21, in Hotlanta. They have appeared in one Super Bowl, losing to the Broncos in 1998 after Denver clawed past the Jets in that tough AFC Championship Game. Their overall playoff record is 6-10, their last postseason win in '04 at home over St. Louis, 47-17.
Giants T Kareem McKenzie, a third-round selection out of Penn State in 2001, and RB D.J. Ware, who went undrafted out of Georgia, both can trace their professional beginnings back to the Jets. Linebackers coach Jim Herrmann, secondary/safeties coach David Merritt and assistant strength and conditioning coach Markus Paul also spent time as Jets coaches.
It's hard to believe Falcons DE John Abraham is 33, but he just completed his 12th professional season. Abe, who was the Jets' No. 13 overall selection in the 2000 draft, racked up 53.5 sacks in six seasons with the Green & White before being shipped to Atlanta in a three-team deal that got them the No. 29 selection in 2006 that they used on C Nick Mangold. Abraham had 9.5 sacks and four forced fumbles in 2011, and the visitors need him to be at his best Sunday at the Met.
Jets strength coach Bill Hughan worked in the NFL with Falcons director of athletic performance Jeff Fish in Oakland (2004-07)and Atlanta (2008-10) before getting hired by Rex Ryan.