The Falcons offensive line has garnered much of the conversation in the week leading up to the Falcons at Giants Wild Card round game. Atlanta's line will have its work cut out for them to slow down New York's dominant pass rush.
While Atlanta hasn't gotten nearly the sacks it imagined this season when it upgraded the defensive end position with the addition of Ray Edwards, a healthy John Abraham down the stretch has contributed to the 10 sacks in the season's final four games from Falcons rushers.
Abraham led the charge with 4.5 sacks and he thinks his late-season production is due to his health.
"I'm as 100 percent as I could be at this time of the year," Abraham said. "I feel more comfortable and I think my play now is showing that I'm OK."
Although New York's offensive line has suffered a number of injuries this season, they've managed to piece together a working line that has limited quarterback Eli Manning's sacks to 28. That number puts them at seventh-best in the NFL.
Manning, like many elite quarterbacks, doesn't get unnerved by pressure, but the Falcons know they still have to bring it. The quarterback has had a career year, earning a Pro Bowl bid for the second time in his career. Standing behind a line that has gelled well to protect him has enabled Manning to get the ball into the hands of his receivers, two of which have over 1,000 yards receiving this season.
"He doesn't get all shook up when you send pressure at him," safety William Moore said. "He sits in there. He'll deliver the ball like a Super Bowl-winning quarterback does. He's been there and done that. He's one of those players whose experience through the playoffs will be important for him. He'll rally the guys around him. He's got young receivers that have been doing a great job."
Late in the season, the Giants lost their starting center David Baas. Kevin Boothe, who began the season as the backup left guard started three games in his place. Baas has returned and is expected to start against Atlanta.
The offensive line woes, however, don't end there. Halfway through the season, they lost their starting left tackle, William Beatty. When he went down, guard David Diehl moved to tackle. Despite all the moving parts this season, the Giants offensive line has done a commendable job protecting Manning.
"It's their kind of mentality," defensive tackle Corey Peters said. "When someone goes down, someone else steps up and fill in. They have some guys that can play a couple of different positions. They've moved around guys and they have a lot of experience. After the ball is snapped a lot of times, it's a lot similar. They've continued to work hard and take an attitude like a lot of people, when someone goes down you've got to step up."
Even though they've used their versatility well, the line allowed seven sacks in the final four games and Atlanta knows they must get the heat on Manning early and often to slow down their passing attack, which will likely be New York's priority due to an up-and-down running game this season.
"They definitely know what they're doing and work well together," Peters said. "They're coached well. They have their weaknesses. We have to do a good job of getting pressure on Eli, he's a great quarterback. If we can do that I think we can have some success."
Tallying Turnovers:The Falcons' 27-game streak of forcing a turnover ended in Week 10 against the Saints, but they've picked up where they left off. In the seven games since Week 10 the Falcons have only had one game where they didn't force a turnover, Week 12 against the Vikings.
Atlanta's coaching staff preaches turnovers and the streak confirms that. Falcons head coach Mike Smith often says when a team can force turnovers and limit their turnovers on offense they're going to be well-positioned to win any football game.
Manning's 16 interceptions placed him tied for sixth-most in the league this season, however the Giants have a 7 turnover differential, meaning they've taken the ball away seven more times than they've lost it. The Falcons are at 8, tied for fifth in the league.
In what is believed to be a close game by two evenly-matched teams, the turnover battle will have heightened emphasis. A forced turnover by the Falcons' defense could give Atlanta's offense enough to emerge ahead in a game where points will be at a premium because of both team's ability to run the clock on offense.
"It's the playoffs," William Moore said. "We're going to have to (force turnovers). Turnovers are going to be key this weekend. I'm really comfortable with our gameplan this week and what we've got going on. We know what to expect against a great offense like that."
Atlanta forced nine turnovers on defense in the final three games of the season.
Award-Winning Week:The Falcons had a few individual honors this week when wide receiver Julio Jones was named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Month for December/January and linebacker Curtis Lofton earned the NFC's Defensive Player of the Week honor.
Jones joins Matt Ryan as the only Falcons to earn the award. He lead all NFL rookies in all three offensive categories during the month and his six touchdowns were tied for the most in the league; at least one touchdown catch came in each of the final four games of the season.
For the season he led all NFL rookies with eight touchdown catches and was first among NFC rookies with 54 catches and 959 yards. The two touchdown passes Jones caught in Week 17 were 26 seconds apart, making him the first rookie since 1960 to catch two TD passes within 30 seconds.
"That's a great honor for Julio," head coach Mike Smith said. "He's had a real solid month of football for us. We know what kind of skills he's got and I think he's shown it in the last four ball games. It's an honor for him and it's an honor for our offense. Everybody's a part of it, the quarterback, the offensive linemen. It's good to see Julio getting an individual award."
Lofton's 14 tackle, one-interception day last Sunday helped him earn the player of the week award.
In the second quarter, he turned his third career interception into his first career touchdown when he returned it 26 yards for the score. His 14 tackles led the team and nine of those tackles were either within five yards of the line of scrimmage or behind it.
Lofton has now led the Falcons in tackles for three straight seasons. His honor is the first of his career and he is the second Falcons player to be named player of the week in three weeks. John Abraham was recognized with the honor in Week 15.
Smith said he hopes there are a few more awards and honors still in store for his players this season.
"This was a big week for individuals on our football team," the coach said. "That was a great honor for Curtis. He had a huge game; first career touchdown on the interception. He had ten tackles. Curtis has had a solid regular season for us. ...We would like to see those guys or someone on our team at the end of the postseason get some more awards."
Injury Report:Atlanta had a number of players return to practice on Thursday. The only two that did not participate were Brent Grimes and Stephen Nicholas.
Smith said he hoped Grimes would return on Friday.
"Right now we want to try to get him feeling as good as he can," he said. "We anticipate he'll get out here and practice tomorrow."
Limited on Thursday were Harry Douglas (groin), Kerry Meier (groin), William Moore (groin), Michael Palmer (knee), Jason Snelling (knee) and Michael Turner (groin).
Not practicing for the Giants on Thursday was Ahmad Bradshaw (foot), Mark Herzlich (ankle) and Tony Ugoh (ankle). Limited participants included Jake Ballard (knee), Da'Rel Scott (knee), Osi Umenyiora (ankle/knee) and Corey Webster (hamstring).