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Know Your Enemy: The Falcons

Matt Ryan will try to get his first playoff victory against Big Blue

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    NEWSLETTERS

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    The Falcons will get a taste of northern hospitality for a change.

    Over the last two weeks, the Giants have played a pair of opponents -- the Jets and the Cowboys -- with whom they shared a fair amount of animosity thanks to a long history of competition.

    That's not going to be the case this weekend. The Giants and Falcons have played before, of course, but there is not a long history of bad blood between these two franchises.

    No matter. The playoffs provide enough reason to care all by themselves and, should that not be enough for some reason, Justin Tuck is happy to throw some fuel on the fire. 

    Tuck spent Monday calling the Falcons offensive linemen dirty players, a charge that has been levied by several other players around the league and one that should fire up one of the more important battles in Sunday's game.

    Tuck and his partners on the Giants defensive front need to pour on the pressure without concerning themselves with any chicanery from the Falcons blockers even if Tuck's decision to make an issue of things might earn an extra cut block to the aching ankle of Osi Umenyiora.

    There's more to the Falcons than just the alleged criminality of their offensive line, however. Here's what else you need to know about the team rolling into the Meadowlands this Sunday.

    The Record: The Falcons finished 10-6, which is a better record than the Giants attained this year although the two teams took a similar road to the postseason. The Falcons, like the Giants, beat just one team with a winning record but, also like the Giants, they closed strong with three wins in the last four weeks to earn their spot in the tournament. 

    The Coach: Mike Smith has been the most successful coach in Falcons history -- which is kind of like being the tallest of the seven dwarves -- by taking the team to four straight winning seasons and back-to-back playoff spots for the first time ever. He also made the most bizarre coaching decision of the season in overtime against the Saints when he chose to go for it on fourth down from his own 29 in overtime and then watched the Saints kick a field goal to win the game after stuffing Michael Turner.

    The Offense: It is hard to take much away from Atlanta's blowout win in Week 17 over a Bucs team that quit weeks ago, but the play of Michael Turner was notable. He piled up 178 yards before the Falcons started resting players and looked totally healthy after a season filled with nagging injuries. The Giants have had trouble stopping the run all year so Turner's return to form is worrisome.

    Also worrisome is the presence of Tony Gonzalez, Julio Jones and Roddy White. The Falcons can throw the ball well and will test the Giants secondary down the field with Jones, something that has also been a trouble spot for Big Blue this season.

    That brings us back to the question of creating pressure because, as well as they've played the last two weeks, we all know the Giants can't win games defensively without overwhelming the quarterback. Dirty as they are, the Falcons line hasn't done a great job of protecting Matt Ryan this season and the Giants need to take advantage of that.

    The Defense: The pass rush is also going to be crucial for the Falcons. The big difference is that they don't have nearly as many guys who provide it.

    John Abraham can make life miserable for anyone, but the rest of the Falcons don't do all that good a job of getting after the quarterback. While the Falcons defense is good, they will be very vulnerable through the air if Eli Manning has time to pick them apart. 

    It will likely be up to Manning to get it done. The Falcons allowed 97 rushing yards per game this season, a number that the Giants struggle to reach against bad run defenses and it is a matchup that doesn't favor the home team Sunday.

    The Intangibles: Playoff experience isn't a problem for the Falcons, but winning games in the postseason has been tricky for them. They've been one-and-done in both of their trips under Smith with Ryan playing poorly in each game. He's been too good in his first four seasons to understand what the issue is come playoff time, but it remains an obstacle that needs to be overcome.

    Playing on the road hasn't bothered the Falcons this year and they actually threw the deep ball better when they were away from the Georgia Dome in 2011. Gonzalez, who just decided to return for one more year, has also never won a playoff game if that's something you find significant.

    Unsung Hero: Sean Weatherspoon doesn't pile up sacks and he isn't a media darling like Ray Lewis, but he's a damn fine linebacker for the Falcons. He's the kind of do-everything backer that the Giants have been missing in recent years and he will have an impact on Sunday's game if the Giants don't account for him well enough.

    Key Matchup: We keep going back to the Giants defensive line against the Falcons offensive line for a reason. If the Giants rush Ryan consistently and effectively, their chances of winning this game increase exponentially.

    The Bottom Line: The Falcons don't really jump out at you in any particular phase of the game, but they are a solid team across the board that won't be overwhelmed by the moment. They are also a big step up from the two teams that the Giants polished off in the last two weeks, so they'll need to step up their game accordingly to advance to the second round.

    Josh Alper is a writer living in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter and he is also a contributor to Pro Football Talk.

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