Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan looks to pass against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the first half of a game earlier this season. Ryan threw 10 TD passes and no interceptions in his last four regular-season games and will lead the Falcons in Sunday's wild-card playoff game against the New York Giants.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Anyone looking for the big play this weekend, the coast-to-coast catch and run, should turn on the NFC wild-card game with the Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants.
There’s bound to be a few of them at MetLife Stadium today.
Start with the Falcons (10-6) and Matt Ryan. While halfback Michael Turner and receiver Roddy White move the chains, Ryan has developed a big-play chemistry with rookie receiver Julio Jones. The two have combined on eight touchdowns. The shortest has been 17 yards and there are four over 48 yards.
The big combo for the Giants (9-7) is Eli Manning and rising second-year star Victor Cruz. The two have combined on five touchdowns of 68 yards or more, including a league record-tying 99-yarder against the Jets two weeks ago.
The big-play nature of the two offenses isn’t surprising in an NFL that has been dominated this season by the quarterbacks and the offenses.
A record 11,356 points were scored, with games averaging 44.4 points, the highest average in 46 seasons (46.1 in 1965).
“A lot of times, you do what you have to do,” Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. “You make the adjustments and so-on and so-forth. I think we’ve had four or five games in a row where we’ve had pretty good balance and that’s the way we like to play. In circumstances where it wasn’t so obvious that we could run, we’d do whatever we had to do. The quarterback naturally has responded very well to that.”
While Ryan and Manning have both had career seasons, the big-play nature of their play this season has been unexpected.
Much of the credit for that goes to Jones and Cruz.
Atlanta moved up to No. 6 in the NFL Draft this spring to grab Jones, a burner from Alabama. They haven’t regretted it. His 54 catches for 959 yards and eight TDs led all NFL rookies.
Having Jones has forced opposing defenses to pick their poison. They can double any receiver, but they can’t double everyone. That helps White, who had an NFC-high 100 catches, and Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez.
“When you have Julio on one side, Roddy on the other, Tony in the middle, and then you add another guy like Harry Douglas who has had a great season as well, somebody is going to have one-on-one matchups and I think it is primarily because we added Julio this year that defenses have played us this way,” said Ryan, who finished the regular season with a career-best 29 touchdown passes.
Jones admits there was an adjustment period, including learning how to deal with injuries that forced him to miss three games.
“Once I got the hang of that, everything feels like it’s coming naturally to me again,” Jones said.
While concerned about Jones, Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said everything starts with slowing down Turner, who rushed for 1,340 yards. If New York can do that, then it can put pressure on run with a front four led by All Pro defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora.
“It’s well documented that when he goes over 100 yards, they win,” Fewell said. “It’s going to be vitally important that we control him, that we have to come up with a body part on that guy. He’s a big strong guy. When I say big, strong guy, he’s like Maurice Jones-Drew in that he’s very powerful. We’ve got to do a great job of wrap tackling.”
The Falcons don’t have to worry about the Giants’ running game as much. New York finished last in the league in rushing, averaging less than 90 yards. That’s forced Manning and the passing game to step up and he’s had a spectacular season.
Manning threw for 4,933 yards, with Cruz catching 82 passes for a team-record 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns. The Giants set a team record, averaging 295.5 yards passing and they led the NFL with 18 completions of 40 or more yards this season.
“We always have that capability — to hit the big play,” Manning said. “Now it’s just being consistent, making those third downs, those third and shorts, intermediate plays that become big, keep drives going.”
Cruz is fast but most of his big plays have come when he makes a defender miss a tackle and he gets into the open field. His 99-yard touchdown against the Jets came after he split two defenders after a 10-yard catch. His 74-yarder against Dallas last weekend was on a short square out where one player missed the tackle, and he outraced two defenders down the sideline.
“I think anytime I get a chance to get the ball, I want to make the big play,” said Cruz, who was signed as a free agent in 2010. ‘Whether it be a deep route or an intermediate route, I am just trying to do the most I can with that catch or route.”
The Giants have as much depth at receiver at Atlanta. Hakeem Nicks also had a 1,000-yard season, catching 76 passes for 1,192 yards and seven touchdowns. There is also the forgotten man, Mario Manningham. He has been bothered by a knee injury in the final month, but finished with 39 catches for 523 yards, a 13.4 yard average. Tight end Jake Ballard (38 catches for a 15.9 yard average) returned to practice this week after missing two games with a knee injury and expects to play.
“I believe in our receiving corps and high-flying offense right now,” said Nicks, who expects a breakout game from Manningham. “With Eli in charge, we can get the job done. Eli has been doing a great job of leading us so far this season, so our confidence is in him and we know we can get the job done. “
Falcons safety William Moore said it’s going to be hard to confuse Manning.
“It’s the playoffs. We’re going to have to (force turnovers),” Moore said. “Turnovers are going to be key this weekend. I’m really comfortable with our game plan this week and what we’ve got going on. We know what to expect against a great offense like that.”