Wiedmer: Falcons face big NFL test

Wiedmer: Falcons face big NFL test

December 13th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton (1) scrambles for a gain as Atlanta Falcons' Vance Walker (99) chases during the first half of an NFL game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

For someone like myself who neither bets on the NFL nor owns a fantasy football league team, pro football's regular season can often seem only slightly more exhilarating than its NBA counterpart.

In other words, wake me when the playoffs begin.

But this Sunday inside the Georgia Dome is an exception. The Atlanta Falcons -- quite possibly, your Falcons for many of you in this area -- host the defending world champion New York Giants.

Maybe it's not SEC Championship Game big, where most tickets for Alabama's win over Georgia brought $500 or more, but for a regular-season NFL game, this is Christmas come early.

Beyond the not-so-little fact that Atlanta can all but wrap up home field advantage with a win, or that the Giants desperately need a victory to make sure they stay ahead of both Dallas and Washington in the NFC East, there's the R word to consider -- revenge.

The Falcons' 2011 playoff run was ended almost before it began, the Giants crushing them 24-2 in New York last season on their way to their second Super Bowl victory in five years.

The fallout from that loss was stunning. Both Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Malarkey and defensive chief Brian VanGorder flew south, Malarky to become the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, VanGorder oddly exiting to run Auburn's defense.

Nearly a year later the Jags aren't near the playoffs and Auburn's staff is out on the street.

The Falcons apparently miss neither as they attempt to run their NFC best record to 12-2 following last week's surprising loss at Carolina.

Yet it is also because of that loss that this game takes on added significance. There is a perception that the Falcons under Mike Smith are not unlike the Atlanta Braves were so long perceived to be under Bobby Cox -- a team built for the regular season rather than the playoffs.

Now in his fifth season, Smith stands a sterling 54-23 (70 percent) for a franchise that had never posted back-to-back winning seasons before he arrived.

Yet much as Cox often struggled in the postseason, Smith is yet to win a playoff game and performing as the Falcons did at Carolina, that might not change this time around.

"We're a veteran team, we know how to get prepared," said Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan on Wednesday. "We just didn't do a good job of it [against Carolina]."

Then there are the Giants, which seem to mirror the girl with the curl almost every season under Tom Coughlin. When they're good, they're very, very good and when they're bad, they're horrid.

How else to explain the following wins and losses within their 8-5 (to date) season:

Wins: 26-3 over San Francisco, 38-10 over Green Bay, 52-27 over New Orleans.

Losses: 31-13 to Cincinnati, 19-17 to Philadelphia.

Now 8-5 on the season, Big Blue's division lead over the Redskins and Cowboys is a single game and the Giants have split with each. Not that Las Vegas is giving up on quarterback Eli Manning and crew just yet. Despite the Falcons having won three more games, oddsmakers have both teams at 8-1 to win the Super Bowl. As of Wednesday, the New England Patriots (10-3) were the favorites (4-1) with Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos a 9-2 choice.

"We've still got a chance to win the division and get into the playoffs," Eli said during a Wednesday press conference, keenly aware that New York must also visit Baltimore two days before Christmas.

"A lot of times we are in that situation where we need to win games to get into the playoffs. We are in a great position. But to hold onto that spot we've got to play our best football."

And the Falcons -- who have won six games by six points or less against a less than overwhelming schedule -- will have to play their best football to stop them.

Still, in Week 2, Atlanta intercepted Peyton Manning three times in a 27-21 win over Denver that was much more one-sided than the score.

Three months later, that win combined with last month's thumping of New Orleans and Drew Brees remain the talking points for why the Falcons can replace the Giants as Super Bowl champs.

But given how vulnerable they've always seemed in the postseason against the Packers and Giants of the football universe, the Falcons might also want to win for another reason -- it might knock New York from the playoffs, meaning one less hurdle for Atlanta when it matters most.

Call it playoff addition by subtraction.