1. Tie-Breaker Bowl: Both teams got off to dynamic starts before faltering. The Falcons were 3-1 before slipping to 5-4. The Giants opened 5-0 before dropping four consecutive. The winner gets the coveted head-to-head tiebreaker for any possible playoff berth.
The play of both quarterbacks, Matt Ryan and Eli Manning, has dipped during their teams’ slides.
“They’ve played some really tough teams in their defeats,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “They had the game in New Orleans and in San Diego. They started really fast.”
If Ryan is going to slip back into gear, he’ll have to do it against the league’s top-rated defense.
In part because of their defense, the Giants are also No. 1 in the NFL in time of possession.
“They like to control the tempo of the game,” Smith said.
The Falcons refused to call this a “must-win” game.
“It’s important, but we don’t view it any differently than we do any week, in that it’s the next one our schedule, it’s an NFC opponent and it’s in the month of November,” Ryan said. “We have to do everything that we can to give ourselves a chance.”
2. The Burner Lite: The Falcons figure to have combination of Jason Snelling and Aaron Stecker ready for the Giants, barring any miraculous recoveries from Michael Turner (ankle sprain) and Jerious Norwood (hip flexor). The Giants are allowing 4.5 yards per carry and 12 rushing touchdowns.
Snelling entered the Carolina game expecting to get his usual 10 to 15 snaps, but ended up playing 57 snaps after Turner went down in early in the second quarter.
“He was able to hold up in that situation,” Smith said. “If called upon, I know that Jason will do a good job for us.”
Snelling is a combo running back and fullback. He runs well between the tackles, but doesn’t have Turner’s explosiveness. He’ll have to turn in a big game against the Giants, who are ranked 13th against the run (104.3 yards per game), to help Ryan.
The Giants held San Diego to 34 yards rushing (22 to LaDainian Tomlinson) in their previous outing.
“Snelling has come in in a number of different roles for us this year,” Ryan said. “Really in a number of different games and has played well running it and has caught the ball out of the backfield.”
Stecker is a 10-year veteran who could help on third downs.
“We feel like we’ve got a good offensive line,” Ryan said. “We have some guys that can open up some holes.”
3. Falcons to see the quick game: The Falcons’ defense has issues.
Two weeks ago, Washington tried to stand in the pocket and throw the ball around the Georgia Dome, but were sacked five times. They went to their “quick game” attack and refused to hold the ball long in the second half and had some success.
Redskins play-caller Sherman Lewis started dialing up a bunch of slants and quick outs to slow the Falcons’ pass rush. Carolina followed suit last week and got the ball out quicker to receivers who had big cushions or weren’t covered closely enough.
“When you have a problem with something the week before, you prepare yourself to see it the following week,” Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson said. “Until we get it corrected, we are going to be seeing it.”
Disguising coverages will not be a good option against Manning.
“He’s a smart guy,” Peterson said. “He’s not too mobile or agile in the pocket, but he’s a smart guy. It’s always hard playing against a guy who’s smart and knows where to go with the ball.”
Manning has seen the film and has brushed up on his “quick game” package.
“Their pass rush is very good, so it’s hard to get the time for a lot of deep throws down the field,” Manning said. “You can throw some quick game, but they do a good job of coming up and tackling.”
4. Stop ‘Earth, Wind & Ware’: The Giants’ tandem of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw has been productive this season.
Former Georgia running back Danny Ware also could play against the Falcons. He’s recovered from an elbow injury.
“We play two backs, and we may play three,” New York coach Tom Coughlin said.
But the running game starts with the 6-foot-4, 264-pound Jacobs.
“He’s a bruising runner,” Smith said. “He’s a guy that we are going to have to get a number of guys to get their pads on him. We’re going to have to swarm to the football. That’s going to be imperative because it’s going to be tough to bring him down in a one-on-one situation.”
Jacobs was running soft earlier in the season, but had gone back to his hard-charging ways before the bye week.
“I like facing the guys who are supposedly the best guy,” Peterson said. “As a linebacker speaking, I’m excited about it. I tip my hat to him. I give respect when it’s due.”
5. Didn’t the Falcons just play wide receiver Steve Smith? The Falcons are getting tired of seeing this Steve Smith guy. No, they are not the same player, but if New York’s Steve Smith and can do anything close to what Carolina’s Steve Smith did to the Falcons in two games this season, then the secondary is in trouble again.
Smith is the Giants’ leading receiver, and Manning looks for him often on third down.
“He seems to be their go-to-receiver,” Smith said. “I think 39 of his 61 catches have been on third down. He’s also been the No. 1 target in the red zone. He’s a guy that we are going to know where he lines up because they will move him around depending on the personnel grouping.”
Three key matchups
1. Falcons MLB Curtis Lofton vs. Giants RB Brandon Jacobs: The Giants will try to soften the Falcons’ defense by pounding the 264-pound Jacobs at them. He’s the ultimate power runner once he gets rolling. Some well-timed run blitzes are one way to slow him. Lofton, a second-year linebacker, is team’s leading tackler with 103, including 72 solos. He’ll need to get to Jacobs before Jacobs gets rolling.
2. Giants DE Osi Umenyiora vs. Falcons LT Sam Baker: Baker is trying to bounce back after missing last Sunday’s game in Carolina. He didn’t finish the two previous games. He’ll need to step up his play against the Giants’ sack leader. Baker will need to control the edge and be stout in pass protection.
3. Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez vs. Giants LB Michael Boley: The Falcons told Boley he wasn’t aggressive enough last season after he let Reggie Bush catch a key pass in a loss in New Orleans. Based on his play in the San Diego game, he’s still pensive in coverage, but he will get a mighty test against Gonzalez, the Falcons’ second-leading receiver with 44 catches for 501 yards and four touchdowns. He has the speed and cover ability to stay with Gonzalez, but the Falcons seemed to question his determination at the end of his four-year stay.
Falcons will win if ...
1. They take care of the football: Coach Smith said Ryan’s interceptions last week were team interceptions. Well then the “team” needs to stop throwing them. The “team” has accounted for 10 interceptions over the past five games. Errant throws, footwork and route-running were cited as the issues. Turnovers will be fatal against the Giants, who love to control the clock with their stable of running backs.
2. They score touchdowns in the red zone: The Giants have allowed 22 touchdowns on 29 trips to the red zone. “We haven’t done a really good job of turning people away,” Coughlin said. That was the Giants’ No. 1 priority over the bye week. The Falcons have 30 red-zone trips and have scored 22 times (73 percent), including 17 touchdowns (57 percent).
3. They can be road warriors: The Falcons are 1-4 on the road this season, with their only road win coming in San Francisco. The road team has won the past 12 times in this series, dating to 1979. Ryan has thrown more interceptions (eight) than touchdowns (six) on the road. The Giants’ secondary has been leaky, as they have struggled at safety after Kenny Phillips suffered a season-ending injury.