In the days before Sunday's NFC wild-card showdown against the Falcons, Giants defensive end Justin Tuck called Atlanta's offensive linemen "dirtbags" because of their reputation for downfield cut-blocking and after-the-whistle hits. In retrospect, the better term might have been sandbags—as in large, heavy objects that just sit there and take a pounding. The Giants' defense dominated the trenches at MetLife Stadium on Sunday. The unit actually threw a shutout in the 24--2 win—Atlanta's only points came on a second-quarter safety. "If we can continue to play defense like that," coach Tom Coughlin said after the Giants earned a trip to Lambeau Field to face the top-seeded Packers this Sunday, "we can make ourselves heard in this tournament."
The Giants' defense ranked an uncharacteristic 27th in the league, but in recent weeks it has been surging. New York had eight sacks in its final two regular-season games and two more on Sunday, when it held the Falcons' explosive offense to a season-low 247 yards. The tone was set on the first play of the second quarter. Facing fourth-and-one at the New York 24-yard line, Atlanta went for the first down instead of kicking a field goal. Matt Ryan's QB sneak was stopped for no gain by tackle Linval Joseph and linebacker Michael Boley. "It's disrespectful for them to go for it," Giants defensive end and sack leader (16½) Jason Pierre-Paul said, apparently forgetting for the moment that New York had allowed 10 fourth-down conversions in 18 attempts during the regular season, tied for sixth worst in the NFL. The Falcons found themselves in virtually the same position late in the third quarter, facing fourth-and-inches at the New York 21. Trailing 10--2, Atlanta again went for it; this time Ryan was stopped short by Pierre-Paul and linebacker Chase Blackburn. "They tried to impose their will and show how strong they are," defensive end Osi Umenyiora said. "To push them back like that, it gives us a lot of confidence. It probably shocked them."
The question now: Can the Giants do the same to Green Bay? In Week 13, New York nearly knocked off the Packers, who escaped MetLife Stadium with a 38--35 victory on a field goal as time expired. Aaron Rodgers threw for 369 yards and four touchdowns that day, but the Giants sacked him twice, snagged an interception and deflected six passes—all without Umenyiora, who missed seven games with knee and ankle injuries. The nine-year veteran returned for the regular-season finale and has three sacks since, including one of Ryan on Sunday. The Giants now are better prepared to combat Rodgers where he hurt them most: On their final drive in that Week 13 game, the Packers moved the ball 68 yards on four passes in 58 seconds to set up the game-winning field goal. "Our pass rush is our pass coverage," defensive coordinator Perry Fewell says. "[Umenyiora] has definitely been the missing piece for us up front."
Fewell took over New York's defense last season and put in a chaotic scheme—dubbed NASCAR because it runs on speed and power—that uses ends, tackles and linebackers interchangeably to confuse pass protections. "We have many monsters," Umenyiora says. "It just took a while to get everything going. Now we're all in sync."
After a season of ups (a 24--20 win at New England in Week 9) and downs (two losses to the lowly Redskins and another to the Seahawks), it's not just the Giants' defense that's finding its groove. There's a feeling in the locker room that this team is coming together much as the Giants of four years ago did. That team leaned on a dominant defense and ground game to reel off four straight postseason wins, including the massive upset of the unbeaten Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. "In terms of intensity and hitting our stride, it's right on par," linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka says.
The Giants' rushing attack, the NFL's worst (89.2 yards per game) during the regular season, had a season-high 172 yards on 31 carries against the Falcons, inspiring tailback Ahmad Bradshaw to call New York "the toughest team in the league." The ground performance was encouraging, especially since Atlanta had the NFC's third-best rushing defense this season, but to keep up with the high-flying Packers the Giants will need to take advantage of their big-play capability. New York led the league with 18 plays of 40-plus yards, and Eli Manning threw for 347 yards and three touchdowns in the Week 13 matchup. On Sunday the Giants put the Falcons away with two quick strikes: Hakeem Nicks caught a short pass over the middle and turned it into a 72-yard touchdown in the third quarter, and in the fourth Manning hit Mario Manningham on a 27-yard post route that split double coverage for the final score.
Of course, even if the offense clicks, the Giants' D must keep the Packers from striking back. "We're still ascending," Kiwanuka says. "It shouldn't have taken us so long to get there, but I'm confident the inconsistency won't creep back. This is do-or-die. We understand how to play in these situations."
GIANT STEP FORWARD A healthy Umenyiora (above, sacking Ryan) has made New York's pass rush fierce; Manning (left) runs an offense that can match the Pack big play for big play.