Boy, did they deliver one Sunday to the defending Super Bowl champions.
Coming off an ugly loss and criticized for failing to impress even when they won, the Falcons turned in their most well-rounded performance of the season with the playoffs approaching. Matt Ryan threw three touchdowns passes and the defense handed New York its first regular-season shutout since 1996, routing the Giants 34-0.
“We love the haters, man,” said Falcons cornerback Asante Samuel, who had the first of two interceptions against Eli Manning. “The haters keep us going. So keep your hate coming. We love it. It makes us play with a chip on our shoulder.”
It sure showed.
Julio Jones caught a couple of scoring throws from Ryan, who broke his own franchise records for completions and passing yards in a season. Matty Ice finished 23 of 28 for 270 yards.
“I felt like I was seeing the field well,” Ryan said.
The Falcons (12-2), who have already clinched the NFC South, moved a step closer to home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs. One more win would ensure that any postseason contests before the Super Bowl are held at the Georgia Dome.
Manning had his lowest-rated game since 2007 for New York (8-6), which dropped into a first-place tie with Washington and Dallas in the NFC East. The Redskins and the Cowboys both won Sunday.
The Giants also went 0-for-3 on fourth down and missed a short field goal.
“Atlanta was very, very good. We were very, very bad,” New York coach Tom Coughlin said. “There’s no excuse for what happened here.”
Despite their lofty record, Atlanta has received plenty of criticism for struggling to beat inferior opponents. A 30-20 loss to last-place Carolina the previous week only seemed to reinforce the notion that the Falcons are headed for another short stay in the playoffs. They have yet to win a postseason game since Ryan took over as the quarterback in 2008, going 0-3.
But one thing the Falcons never seem to do anymore is lose two straight games. They extended the NFL’s longest active streak since consecutive defeats to 49 games, going back to the 2009 season.
“Our focus was heightened from other weeks,” coach Mike Smith said. “We’ve got a lot of great leaders and mentors in that locker room. They took the message from the meetings and took it out on the field.”
After thoroughly dominating the Giants, the Falcons have surely sent a resounding message to the rest of the league: beware of this team in the playoffs.
“Last week everybody was talking smack about us,” defensive end John Abraham said. “We just continue what we’re doing.”
For the Giants, it was a miserable performance when they controlled their own destiny, at a time of year when they normally play some of their best football.
Manning threw his first pick on the second play of scrimmage, setting up a quick Atlanta touchdown. Coughlin made a curious call late in the first half, passing up another short field goal attempt when his team was almost 2 yards shy of the marker. Samuel batted down a short pass intended for Victor Cruz, sending Atlanta to the locker room with a commanding 17-0 lead and all the momentum.
“I was thinking we needed to engender a lift for our sideline,” Coughlin said. “That did not work out either.”
The tone was set right away.
When Manning attempted to hit Hakeem Nicks on a short pass to the right, Samuel stepped in to make the interception and return it to the Giants 16. From there, Michael Turner ran it four straight times, the last of those a 1-yard plunge that gave Atlanta a 7-0 lead less than 3 minutes into the game.
It was all Falcons after Lawrence Tynes missed a chip shot kick from 30 yards, ruining an impressive second possession by the Giants. Atlanta took it 80 yards from there, with Ryan going to Harry Douglas on a 37-yard gain for the biggest play. Then, on third-and-11 from the 12, Ryan went to his favorite target, Tony Gonzalez, in the end zone. The 16-year veteran leaped over safety Will Hill to haul in the high throw — and hopped up quickly for his customary dunk over the goalposts.
Manning finished 13 of 25 for 161 yards, leaving him with a dismal 38.9 rating — his worst since a Dec. 23, 2007, win at Buffalo.
“We have two games left and we have to win those two games,” Manning said. “What else happens after that, we don’t know and can’t control.”
Early in the second half, the Falcons blew it open on Ryan’s 40-yard touchdown pass to Jones down the left sideline. Finally, after a drive that used up more than 9 minutes in the fourth quarter, Ryan went to Jones for a 3-yard TD.
The Giants turned it over one more time in the closing minutes, finishing off their first shutout in the regular season since a 24-0 defeat at Philadelphia on Dec. 1, 1996. The performance came just a week after they put up 52 points on the New Orleans Saints.
There was a moment of silence before the game honoring the Connecticut shooting victims, and New York took the extra step of wearing “SHES” decals on its blue helmets in honor of Sandy Hook Elementary School. Even more touchingly, Cruz dedicated the game to 6-year-old victim Jack Pinto, who was reported to be a big Giants fan.
“It was very emotional, obviously, during the game,” said Cruz, who caught only three passes for 15 yards. “With a family facing that much tragedy, you want to be someone that inspires them, someone that can put a smile on their face at a time where it’s tough to do that.”
NOTES: More recently, the Giants were shut out in the playoffs after the 2005 season, losing at Carolina 23-0. ... Ryan has thrown for 4,202 yards and 27 touchdowns this season. ... There was one bright spot for Manning: He set a franchise record for career completions with 2,585, moving past the mark held by Phil Simms (2,576).