EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Even Eli Manning’s feet are dangerous.
Manning punctuated his best pro season Sunday by throwing for three touchdowns and scrambling for a 14-yard gain that woke up New York’s offense. He sparked the Giants to a 24-2 rout of the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC wild-card game Sunday, their first postseason victory since their Super Bowl upset of undefeated New England four years ago.
Next up is just as big a challenge for the Giants (10-7): the defending champion Packers in Green Bay next Sunday. New York lost 38-35 to Green Bay in December.
‘’We know they are a good team,” Manning said. “We played them tough here, did some good things here, we scored some points. We know offensively we are going to have to play strong, score some points.”
The team that couldn’t run the ball will be sprinting there, bringing along a defense the Packers (15-1) actually might fear. Not to mention the offense led by Manning, who hooked up on a 72-yard catch and run by Hakeem Nicks in the third quarter that put away the inept Falcons (10-7). Manning also connected on a 4-yard TD with Nicks in the second period, and a 27-yard TD throw to Mario Manningham in the fourth quarter that finished it off.
The Giants are playing with more balance on offense and more stinginess on defense than they’ve displayed most of the season. Their last postseason trip to Lambeau Field was a 23-20 overtime victory for the NFC championship two weeks before they upset the Patriots.
The tempo in the first playoff game at MetLife Stadium was set by New York’s defense, which never allowed Atlanta to get going, and by the league’s lowest-ranked rushing game, which ran for a season-high 172 yards, 92 by Brandon Jacobs and 63 by Ahmad Bradshaw. The Giants averaged 5.5 yards a carry, 2 yards more than in the regular season.
For all of Jacobs’ and Bradshaw’s success, it was Manning’s escape and 14-yard dash on third down in the second period that got the Giants rolling. Jacobs soon broke a 34-yard run, and Manning hit Nicks on a post pattern to put the Giants up 7-2.
“I don’t think anyone is game-planning for me to run the ball,” Manning said, “but obviously there were a couple of situations where you have to do it. I am not scared to do it.”
The Giants never really had to look back as the Falcons bumbled their way to their third straight playoff loss under coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan.
New York was aided greatly by Atlanta’s penchant for gambling on fourth downs — and failing. Twice the Giants stymied the Falcons on fourth-and-1 as Ryan’s sneaks went nowhere. The defense also stopped Michael Turner, supposedly the most effective runner on the field, on a third-and-inches late in the third period.
Atlanta missed on a fourth-down try in overtime that cost the Falcons a game against New Orleans during the season. While they negated New York’s recently revitalized pass rush for much of the day, the Falcons couldn’t gain any traction on the ground, being held to 64 yards rushing.
“Our defense played great, kept us in the lead,” Manning said.
Both offenses sputtered in the first half with an assortment of penalties, drops and poor throws.
When the Falcons wheeled out the no-huddle offense, though, they marched from their 10 to a fourth-and 1 at the New York 24. On the first play of the second quarter, Ryan was stacked up on his sneak.
But it turned out positively for the Falcons anyway.
Giants guard Chris Snee was called for holding, and, from his 13, Manning was pressured back into the end zone by James Sanders. He threw the ball away to avoid the sack, resulting in a safety.
New York had its own fourth-and-inches run on its first touchdown drive. Jacobs ran over safety Thomas DeCoud on the play from the Atlanta 6.
Nicks caught his post pattern over Dominique Franks, the fill-in for injured cornerback Brent Grimes, to make it 7-2.
The Giants’ most recent home playoff victory was a 41-0 rout of Minnesota for the 2000 NFC title.
Atlanta’s last playoff win was in 2005 over St. Louis when Michael Vick still was the Falcons’ quarterback.