NFC East: Atlanta Falcons

Kirk Cousins a changed quarterback

August, 8, 2013
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The scrutiny still accompanies the other quarterback, regardless of whether he’s playing or not. Meanwhile, Kirk Cousins keeps preparing with the starters as he’s done all spring. Perhaps he’ll start the opener. Perhaps he’ll relieve Robert Griffin III at some point this season. Perhaps the first three preseason games will be Cousins’ last. It’s all uncertain.

What Cousins does know is that he’s a different quarterback than this time last year. If he shows that on the field, it’ll not only help the Redskins, but it will help increase his value, whether for a trade in a couple of years or for his eventual free agency. Cousins handled his backup role well last season, earning a win in a start against Cleveland and throwing a touchdown pass late in a comeback win over Baltimore. He ended up throwing four touchdowns and three interceptions for the season.

Here are a few ways he says he’s a different quarterback:

[+] EnlargeKirk Cousins
AP Photo/Steve Helber"My understanding of pass concepts have grown so much," Kirk Cousins said.
• When Cousins entered his first regular-season game, a relief stint for a concussed Griffin in Week 5 against Atlanta, he almost felt as if he needed a name tag. Cousins had not worked with the starters before this point, save for an occasional snap. That’s not enough to get comfortable. And he rarely worked with the starting receivers. So when Griffin was knocked from the game with a concussion in the third quarter, Cousins needed to introduce teammates to how he was as an NFL quarterback. He was worried about the basics. Though Cousins threw a 77-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Santana Moss, he also threw two interceptions on forced throws.

"It’s a feeling of like, 'Hi, nice to meet you,'" Cousins said. "The one I point to is the center, Will Montgomery. I barely got a snap with him last year. So I step in the huddle and I’m concerned about fumbling the snap. Now if I have to go in a game with Will I’ll say I have a thousand reps with him. It’s not in the forefront of my mind; it’s not even in the back of my mind. So it becomes easier when Robert comes back, whether tomorrow or a few weeks from now, just the fact that I’ve had all these reps already whenever I do have to go in I’ll be that much more confident ... Just the fact that I have this in the bank will help me.”

• During a preseason game against Chicago last summer, Cousins stuck a throw into a tight window along the sidelines, squeezing the pass to receiver Aldrick Robinson in between a safety in Cover 2 and a corner rotating deep. It was an impressive throw. It was also a throw the coaches told Cousins he wouldn’t complete during the regular season.

And Cousins said he would make a different throw now, simply because he’s smarter.

"My understanding of pass concepts have grown so much," he said. "That play, I didn’t have a good feel for my No. 1 option. I hadn’t seen that play repped a lot and I hadn’t repped it a lot so my ability to anticipate and know what it should look like before it happens isn’t there, so I end up getting off that route and going to my second option. Now I just stay with that and make that completion with the first option because I’ve seen it now, I’ve repped it and have a greater familiarity with it. That can go for so many pass concepts."

• That familiarity has led to greater confidence, which is evident in training camp with the passes he’s thrown. He’s more likely than Griffin in 7-on-7 work to throw downfield and take a chance or two. During games, that could result in big plays -- or interceptions, of which he’s thrown a few in camp. Still, Cousins notices a difference in this area and first did so between his first relief appearance against Atlanta and his first start against Cleveland on Dec. 16.

"I’ve gotten a lot better being able to anticipate, see it in my head before it happens and what should happen,” he said. “I see this defender here, but after the snap he’ll be there. So before it happens I can anticipate and know what it should look like. Last year I was reacting to what I see."

• One change some teammates really like: Cousins abandoned the way he tried to snap players into attention. In college, and last season, before calling out the play Cousins would slap his hands together and shout, “Team!” It was a part of his routine he wanted to maintain as a rookie. No longer.

"We walked into [spring workouts] and Trent Williams said to me, half-joking, half-serious, 'You gotta stop saying the team thing. It’s just weird,'" Cousins said. "I said, 'For you, Trent, I’ll stop saying it.'"

Rapid Reaction: Falcons 34, Giants 0

December, 16, 2012
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ATLANTA –- The NFC wild-card playoff rematch between the Giants and Falcons was a complete mismatch as Atlanta destroyed the defending champs 34-0.

What it means: The Giants continued their maddeningly inconsistent ways by following up their big win over the Saints with an embarrassing loss at Atlanta.

The defense had no answers for the Falcons' offense, got little pressure on Matt Ryan and couldn't cover Julio Jones. Eli Manning threw two picks in the first half, David Wilson couldn't get going and the Giants were stopped cold on fourth-and-short three times.

The NFC East is now officially up for grabs.

Ugly start: Manning threw two interceptions in the first half, one on the second offensive play of the game when Asante Samuel picked him off at the Giants' 22 and returned it 6 yards to set up a Michael Turner touchdown run.

On the Giants' next drive, Lawrence Tynes missed a 30-yarder and the Falcons made them pay again. Ryan hit Tony Gonzalez on a touchdown pass to push the Falcons up 14-0.

In the second quarter, Tom Coughlin went for it on fourth-and-1 twice and was denied both times. At the Falcons' 32, Wilson ran to his left side only to be stuffed. Then with less than two minutes left, the Giants went for it again at the Falcons' 11, only to see Manning's pass to Victor Cruz get broken up.

The Falcons were able to go into the half with a 17-0 lead.

The Hokie rookie I: Jayron Hosley started at corner for the injured Prince Amukamara and had a tough day. He bit on a Ryan pump fake that led to a 37-yard pass to Harry Douglas. Hosley pulled up lame and injured his ankle on that play but returned.

He had a nice breakup on a deep pass to Roddy White but later gave up a 40-yard touchdown to Jones, who ran right by him to put the Falcons up 24-0 with 11:31 to go in the third quarter.

Jones beat Corey Webster on his second touchdown, in the fourth quarter.

The Hokie rookie II: Wilson started for Ahmad Bradshaw (knee) and ran as hard as he could, but there wasn't a lot of running room.

Wilson also didn't get a huge workload because the game slipped out of the Giants' hands. On the second play of the game, Wilson was practically flattened by linebacker Sean Weatherspoon while blocking on the play in which Manning threw a pick.

Backup Kregg Lumpkin saw a good amount of action, being used on several draw plays.

Wilson remained the kickoff returner but couldn't do much on kickoffs, either. Atlanta made sure to keep the explosive Wilson in check.

Wilson finished with 55 yards on 12 carries. Lumpkin rushed eight times for 42 yards.

Paying tribute: The Giants wanted to do what they could to honor the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

Coughlin spoke to his team about the tragedy during his Saturday night meeting, and the players had "SHES" on their helmets. Coughlin had it written on his hat, as well.

Cruz paid tribute to 6-year-old Jack Pinto. After learning that Pinto was a Cruz fan, the receiver spoke to Pinto's parents. They told him that they had been contemplating burying their son in a Cruz No. 80 jersey. Cruz had the words "Jack Pinto 'My Hero'" written on his cleats and "Jack Pinto 'This One is 4 U'" on his gloves.

What's next: The Giants travel to Baltimore for a slugfest with the Ravens.

How you feeling? Giants-Falcons

December, 16, 2012
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As the New York Giants prepare to face the Falcons at 1 p.m. at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, here's one reason for Giants fans to feel good about the game and one reason for concern:

Feeling good: The Giants tend to do well against teams they're convinced they can beat. Decisive victories earlier this year over the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers, two of the teams they beat in last year's playoffs, offer evidence for this. But they didn't beat anyone as badly in that playoff run as they beat the Falcons, who didn't even score on offense in a 24-2 loss. This game is in Atlanta, where the Falcons are unbeaten this year, and that mitigates the memory a bit. But the Giants have a significant psychological advantage as a result of that game, and the fact that they've convinced themselves they're playing playoff games already should only strengthen that advantage.

Cause for concern: Of all of the significant injury absences this week, which include starting running back Ahmad Bradshaw, the toughest injuries for the Giants are in the secondary, where safety Kenny Phillips is out again and top cornerback Prince Amukamara joins him on the shelf. Against Matt Ryan and the No. 4-ranked Falcons passing offense, those absences are bound to show up, and it makes it all the more important that the Giants' pass rush look like it did in January against Ryan rather than the way it's looked for most of this season.

Better to receive: A Friday debate post

December, 14, 2012
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There are few teams (if any) in the NFL that can match the New York Giants for the quality of their top two wide receivers, but they play one of them Sunday. The Atlanta Falcons' outstanding duo of Roddy White and Julio Jones is a vital reason the Falcons have the No. 4-ranked passing offense in the league this year. And when you look around the league to try and find starting receiver tandems that compare with the Giants' Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, Atlanta is usually where you settle.

So I thought we'd have a debate: Which pair is better? Which two would you rather have on your team?

Some food for thought:
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    So far this year, White ranks 8th, Cruz 11th, Jones 13th and Nicks 48th in receiving yards. White is ninth in the league in catches (and second on his own team, behind tight end Tony Gonzalez), while Cruz is 10th, Jones 19th and Nicks 50th. Cruz has caught nine touchdown passes, Jones seven, White five and Nicks three.
  • Nicks has had significant injury issues that have cost him games and limited his production when he's played. Jones has been banged-up as well, and it bears mentioning that White has missed practice the last two days with a knee injury and is being called a game-time decision for Sunday.
  • For their careers, in terms of regular-season numbers, Nicks has 252 catches for 3,686 yards and 27 touchdowns in four seasons. Cruz has 158 catches for 2,540 yards and 18 touchdowns in two seasons. Jones has 117 catches for 1,956 yards and 15 touchdowns in two seasons. White has 607 catches for 8,514 yards and 50 touchdowns in eight seasons.
  • In their postseason careers, White and Jones have combined for 29 catches, 257 yards and two touchdowns and have lost all three games in which they've played, including one to the Giants in January. In Nicks' and Cruz's postseason careers, they have combined for 49 catches for 713 yards and five touchdowns and have won all four games in which they've played, including the most recent Super Bowl.
  • It's also worth considering their quarterbacks' impact. Atlanta's Matt Ryan has never been without White, and the two best seasons of his career have been the last two, with Jones on the team. New York's Eli Manning won a Super Bowl throwing to Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer four years before he won one throwing to Nicks and Cruz. Those who would want to argue that the Manning is more responsible for the Giants' receivers' success than the Falcons' quarterback is for his receivers' success have some support for that argument.

Personally I think White's the most accomplished of the group, having excelled for the longest period of time. And if I were drafting right now, factoring in their ages and potential as well as present-day value, I believe I'd take Jones first and Nicks second. Nicks' injury issues scare me, and they're the main reason I can't elevate him over the Atlanta guys even though I'm a well-documented fan of his abilities, worth ethic and accomplishments. They're also the reason I have a hard time deciding whether I'd take him or Cruz in that draft. And if I had to pick one of these guys for whom to draw up a fourth-and-seven play with the season on the line, White's the guy I'd pick.

They are all fantastic, and this is definitely not a clear-cut decision (though I'm sure some in the comments section and on Twitter will insist it is). I think I'll take the Falcons' guys by a hair. They haven't done it in the biggest of spots, as the Giants' guys have, but that's not necessarily on them. I think in terms of overall ability and credentials, they have a slight edge right now. For me.

I welcome your thoughts, as always.


ATLANTA -- The season is now in jeopardy for the Dallas Cowboys.

They came here trying to knock off the undefeated Atlanta Falcons but failed, 19-13, at the Georgia Dome on Sunday night. The Cowboys have now lost eight consecutive games on Sunday night and are 3-5 overall at the halfway point of the season. The Falcons improved to a perfect 8-0.

What it means: The Cowboys are two games under .500 and most likely will have to win seven of the next eight to get into the playoffs. If the Cowboys win six of the next eight, they might need some help to reach the postseason.

Scandrick with some gaffes: Slot cornerback Orlando Scandrick struggled in the fourth quarter against the Falcons. He missed a tackle on a 31-yard run play by Michael Turner on a third-and-6, then was flagged for defensive holding on a third-and-8 play against Roddy White. Both plays extended the last drive of the night for the Falcons. It's these kinds of plays that Scandrick has to make, especially with the game on the line.

Running back rotation: Felix Jones started, but Lance Dunbar (North Texas) got a majority of the snaps as the backup instead of Phillip Tanner. For the game, the Cowboys rushed for 65 yards on 18 carries. Jones had 39 yards on nine carries and Dunbar, on eight carries, picked up 26 yards. It's clear the Cowboys miss starting running back DeMarco Murray, who was out with a sprained foot. His return for the Philadelphia Eagles game next week is a possibility.

Witten makes Cowboys history: Coming into the game, tight end Jason Witten needed three catches to tie Michael Irvin as the franchise's all-time leader in receptions. Witten finished with seven catches for 51 yards. But once again, he had no touchdowns.

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No Bryant in second half: Dez Bryant started despite a sore hip and finished with one catch for 15 yards, none in the second half. Quarterback Tony Romo didn't target him in the second half. Instead, Miles Austin and Kevin Ogletree were the main targets, along with Witten.

Ratliff plays hurt: Nose tackle Jay Ratliff hurt his left ankle late in the first half. While he didn't start the second half, he played through the injury. There were no other major injuries for the Cowboys.

Who's next? The Cowboys finish their toughest stretch of the season (four of five on the road) with a trip to see the Eagles on Sunday.

How you feeling? Cowboys-Falcons

November, 4, 2012
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As the Dallas Cowboys prepare to play the undefeated Falcons in Atlanta tonight at 8:20 pm ET (7:20 pm CT), here's one reason for Cowboys fans to feel good and one reason for concern.

Feeling good: If the Cowboys' plan is to keep Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense on the sideline as long as possible, the game sets up for them to do so. Atlanta's defense is soft against the run, and the absence of linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who's out with an ankle injury, makes it even easier to run against them in the middle of the field. At its best, this Cowboys offense is a balanced one, and if they can have some success early in the run game and establish that balance, they could be in a position to dictate the terms of the game with their very good defense.

Cause for concern: The problem, of course, with that strategy is that starting running back DeMarco Murray remains out with a foot injury and the running game hasn't shown an ability to do much of anything behind backups Felix Jones and Phillip Tanner. So there's a chance, especially when you factor in their season-long offensive line struggles, that they can't get that run game going even against Atlanta's susceptible defense. The Cowboys have the weapons for a passing-game shootout, but it's not necessarily a wise way to go against Ryan, Roddy White and Julio Jones.

How you feeling? Eagles-Falcons

October, 28, 2012
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PHILADELPHIA -- As the Philadelphia Eagles prepare to host the undefeated Atlanta Falcons at 1 p.m. ET today at Lincoln Financial Field, here's one reason for Eagles fans to feel good and one reason for concern.

Feeling good: Andy Reid is 13-0 in his career as Eagles coach in games immediately following bye weeks. That's not a fluke. It's a large enough sample size on which to base the conclusion that Reid's coaches and players know how to take advantage of the extra rest and preparation time. Last year's 34-7 Week 8 victory over the Cowboys at home was the Eagles' most complete and dominating performance of the season. If there is any week this year on which you should be able to count on Michael Vick and the Eagles playing their absolute best, it's this one. They should be able to get Atlanta's excellent receivers covered with Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and they should be able to run the ball against the Falcons' defense, so there are matchups in the game that favor them. But if you believe the Eagles haven't yet played their best football this season, history indicates that you can reasonably tune in today expecting that to change.

Cause for concern: The Falcons have forced 17 turnovers this season, which is the fourth-highest total in the league. The Eagles have committed 17 turnovers this season, which is tied for the second-highest total in the league. This puts the Falcons in position to take advantage of the Eagles' biggest weakness and the problem that is most responsible for their 3-3 record so far this season. A lot of people's hopes for the Eagles in this game rest on the idea that the Falcons' 6-0 record has been built against a supposedly weak schedule. And it's true that the Falcons have yet to play a team that currently has a winning record. But the Eagles don't have a winning record either, and the main reason is that they can't protect the football. Atlanta is not likely to make that any easier.

Video: Week 8 predictions

October, 26, 2012
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Back for more on another Prediction Friday with my picks for the results of the three games being played this week in the NFC East. Click on the video to see which teams I like Sunday. Last week: 2-0 Season to date: 10-13.

Wrap up: Falcons 24, Redskins 17

October, 7, 2012
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Some thoughts on the Washington Redskins' 24-17 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday afternoon at FedEx Field:

What it means: Almost nothing that happened in this game matters as much as what happened to Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, who was knocked out of the game in the third quarter with a concussion and did not return. Griffin was hurt on a big hit from Atlanta linebacker Sean Weatherspoon near the sideline while trying to scramble for a third-and-goal from the 3-yard line. He will have to pass all of the league-mandated concussion tests in order to be cleared to play next week against the Vikings. His status is likely to be monitored more closely in Washington than even the Nationals' playoff series and the presidential election.

The backup: Redskins coach Mike Shanahan was criticized for picking quarterback Kirk Cousins in the fourth round of this year's draft after taking Griffin in the first and not having a pick in the second. The thought was that other needs could have been addressed with that pick. But Shanahan liked Cousins, and the idea of being deep at the most important position on the field. Well, Cousins made him look good with a 77-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss, but he was 4-for-8 for 34 yards and two interceptions on his other passes. Should Griffin have to miss time, it's reasonable to believe Cousins could step in and do a good job. It's unreasonable to think the offense could operate as well as it has so far this year under Griffin, who was drafted 100 picks earlier for a variety of good reasons.

The defensive MVP: Linebacker Ryan Kerrigan has not slumped at all since fellow outside 'backer Brian Orakpo went down for the season with a pectoral injury. In fact, Kerrigan has stepped up his play and been one of the most fearsome linebackers in the entire NFL this season. He opened the scoring in this game by intercepting a Matt Ryan pass and returning it 28 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter.

The other rookie: Running back Alfred Morris, picked in the sixth round of this year's draft, continues to roll. He had his second straight 100-yard rushing game, picking up 115 on 18 carries and catching a 20-yard pass for good measure. No other Redskins running back got more than one carry. Morris has a stranglehold on the job.

And the kicker: Billy Cundiff missed a 31-yard field goal for the second week in a row and is now 7-for-12 on field goals so far this year. He was brought in for his ability to kick touchbacks on kickoffs, and in that area, he has performed as advertised. But there was clearly an assumption that he would be a more reliable field goal kicker than he's been to this point, and a second straight rough week could lead the Redskins to evaluate other options, which are always out there.

What's next: The Redskins host the Minnesota Vikings at 4:25 p.m. ET on Sunday at FedEx Field.
Even as he has dazzled with his play throughout the first month of his first NFL season, Washington Redskins rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III has engendered one common concern in those who have watched him -- a fear that, based on the manner and frequency with which he runs the ball, he's exposing himself to too many hits, or one very big one.

In the third quarter of Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons -- a game in which the Redskins' defense has played extremely well and kept them in it against one of the league's two remaining undefeated teams -- Griffin took a shot from Atlanta's Sean Weatherspoon and was knocked out of the game. Fellow rookie Kirk Cousins took over at quarterback on the Redskins' next offensive series while Griffin was taken to the locker room for treatment.

Cousins went to work right away and completed a 77-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss to give the Redskins a 17-14 lead with 12:24 left in the game.
Officially, the Redskins announced that Griffin was "shaken up" and questionable to return in the fourth quarter. That could mean a concussion, which could put his status for next week's game in jeopardy. We will, obviously, keep you posted.

How you feeling? Redskins-Falcons

October, 7, 2012
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As the Washington Redskins prepare to host the 4-0 Atlanta Falcons at 1 pm ET on Sunday, here's one reason for Redskins fans to be feeling good and one reason for concern.

Feeling good: There is a chance the Redskins will be able to run the kind of clock-control offense they like to run in this game. Atlanta ranks 29th in the league so far this year against the run, allowing 146.3 yards per game on the ground in spite of having led for 78.3 percent of their game time. (h/t, ESPN Stats & Information) The Redskins are averaging 171 yards per game in rushing offense, which is second-best in the league, behind rookie running back Alfred Morris and rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III. When Washington has the ball, no matter what the score is, they should be able to gain yards with it against the Falcons' defense.

Cause for concern: When the Redskins do not have the ball, they could be in large amounts of trouble. In spite of leading for 78.3 percent of their game time so far this year, the Falcons have still dropped back to pass on 66.1 percent of their plays, ESPN Stats & Info tells me. New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is determined to maximize and rely on the strengths of quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones and tight end Tony Gonzalez, and so far this season those guys have rewarded him. Ryan's passer rating is a league-best 112.1, and the lowest it's been in any game so far this year is 101.5 in Week 2 against Denver. The Redskins are shaky in the secondary, and you can bet the Falcons are prepared to take aim.

Checking in on Asante Samuel

July, 30, 2012
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Over at the NFC South blog, Pat Yasinskas has done a post updating the progress of former Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel. The Eagles traded Samuel to the Falcons just before the draft for a seventh-round draft pick, and many Eagles fans bemoaned the deal because of how little they got in return. It was the kind of deal that made you think the Eagles believed Samuel to be done as a player, and a few weeks back Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that Eagles coach Andy Reid believed Samuel was in "steep decline."

Samuel
Pat spoke with Falcons coach Mike Smith and GM Thomas Dimitroff about Samuel and they said they're happy with him. Not a huge shock, since what are they going to say in the first week of camp? "The guy's a bum, I'm sorry we traded for him?" But Smith talked in detail about the kind of player Samuel is -- a cornerback who can match receivers' ability to play in space. And I think that's a pretty fair assessment. If they'd brought him in to be a shutdown, man-coverage corner, I think it'd be fair to say they'd made a mistake. But they didn't. They already had Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson on their roster, and they likely can use Samuel in situations that play to his strengths. And he does have several.

I don't think, based on everything I was being told at the time, that "steep decline" was the driving reason for the Eagles' decision to trade Samuel. I think it was a money issue (i.e., they wanted to get rid of his salary so they could sign their younger players long-term) and a scheme issue (i.e., they wanted to be able to play their corners in man coverage more this season and couldn't do that as long as Samuel was one of the starters). Like Pat, I would not be surprised to see Samuel do well in Atlanta. If he does, I would not automatically believe that means the Eagles made a mistake. The Eagles didn't think they could use him anymore, especially at his price. The Falcons saw a guy who fits what they want to do. It's entirely possible it could work out well both ways.
The latest team being mentioned as interested in acquiring Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel are the Atlanta Falcons, per Adam Schefter, who also reports that the Denver Broncos have dropped out of the running. It seems fair to say that the Eagles' market for Samuel is not expanding, but they don't really need it to. They just need one team interested enough to offer what they want -- a Day 3 draft pick -- in exchange for Samuel, and they need that team to be interesting enough to Samuel that he's willing to restructure his contract in order to facilitate the trade.

It has been reported in Philadelphia that Samuel would be willing to restructure in order to get a trade done, but to this point that has not happened. The Eagles would obviously like to trade Samuel sometime between now and the end of the draft Saturday (otherwise they obviously won't be able to get a 2012 pick for him), and today being Tuesday, the timetable does start to get a bit compressed.

So, what of Atlanta as a suitor? Surely, this is a team for which a player wouldn't mind playing. They are coming off of two straight playoff appearances and by all appearances should be a contender again this coming season. But with Brent Grimes and Dunta Robinson already there, would Samuel be leaving one crowded cornerback situation for another? And if so, would that upset him enough to give them enough of a problem about the contract to scuttle a deal?

It's also worth raising a question here about Atlanta's motivation. The report came out this morning that they were interested in Samuel, and then a few hours later Grimes signed his franchise tender. That could be a coincidence, or it could be that the interest in Samuel was a ploy by the Falcons to get Grimes' situation settled as the offseason program begins?

Much intrigue still swirls around this situation, as it seems to swirl around every situation this time of year. I still think Samuel gets dealt by Saturday night, but I'd only be guessing if I predicted to which team.
Ahmad BradshawAP Photo/Peter MorganAhmad Bradshaw and the New York Giants racked up 172 yards rushing on Sunday against Atlanta.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The key to running the ball effectively in the NFL is patience. The ability to fight off frustration. You run and you get very little. You run again and you lose yards. The temptation sets in to just junk the run game and start chucking the ball.

You watched the Saints-Lions game Saturday night and you're thinking that looks like a pretty sweet way to go. But you have to fight it. You have to stay patient, believing it will work. And the book -- albeit an old book, with frayed corners and yellow-edged pages, says you'll be rewarded.

The New York Giants are putting on a clinic in this sort of patience. For most of this season, they were the worst running team in the entire NFL. They finished the season ranked 32nd among 32 teams in rush yards per game at a miserable 89.2 yards per game. On the surface, they seemed to have morphed into a passing offense, with Eli Manning sailing past 4,000 yards again and Victor Cruz joining Hakeem Nicks to form a dangerous downfield wideout combo. But through it all, the Giants insisted they wanted to run the ball, insisted they still could. And at exactly the right time of the year, they are proving their stubborn, patient selves right.

"At this time of year, especially in the playoffs, that's got to be a strength," Giants left tackle David Diehl said in the wake of the Giants' 24-2 playoff victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. "Getting that run game going, keeping that opposing offense off the field and helping keep our great defensive line fresh. That's what we want to do, and today we did it."

Did they ever. The Giants rolled up 172 rushing yards against a Falcons defense that ranked sixth against the run in the regular season. That's the Giants' season high in rushing yards by 50 -- surpassing the 122 they got in a Week 6 victory over Buffalo and doing so on two fewer carries. They went to the run game because an aggressive Falcons pass rush was clobbering Manning early. But more importantly, they stuck with the run game even while it wasn't working. They didn't start breaking through until the final minutes of the first half, when Brandon Jacobs bounced out to the right for a 34-yard second-down scamper that set up the game's first touchdown. But once the Giants got going, they were on their way to their best rushing day of the season.

"I think numbers-wise, it will be," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "But it was a difficult time getting started. That first half was tough."

He could be talking about the game or the season. The Giants averaged 82.3 yards per game and 3.18 yards per carry in their first 11 games of this season. But over the last six games, starting with the Dec. 4 loss to next week's playoff opponent, the Green Bay Packers, they have averaged 115.7 yards per game and 4.42 yards per carry.

[+] EnlargeHakeem Nicks
AP Photo/Matt SlocumGiants receiver Hakeem Nicks torches the Falcons' defense for a 72-yard touchdown reception.
What changed?

"If I could tell you that, we would have done it 10 weeks ago," right tackle Kareem McKenzie said. "But obviously, it gets you in a better rhythm and also opens up a little bit what the offensive coordinator can do in terms of calling plays."

All true, but what's more important for the Giants is that their improved run game allows them to play the kind of physically dominating style of football that traditionally wins this time of year. With their defensive line fully healthy for the first time all season, they've been the dominant physical team on defense in each of their last three games. And now that the offensive line is opening holes in the run game so much more effectively than it was earlier in the season, they're able to do that more on the other side of the ball as well.

"Confidence, man," said running back Ahmad Bradshaw, who had 63 yards on his 14 carries while Jacobs carried 14 times for 92 yards. "We feel good about our running game, and we stick to it."

They felt confident all year, and stuck to it all year, even when it wasn't working. But things turned around when injuries forced the Giants to make changes on the offensive line. Starting left tackle Will Beatty had surgery on his eye in advance of the Week 12 game in New Orleans, forcing Diehl from left guard back to his old position of left tackle. They rushed for just 73 yards on 22 carries that night while the Saints were blowing them out, but they seemed to do better opening holes for Jacobs.

Over the next few games, the Giants got Bradshaw back from his foot injury but were forced to play without center David Baas. But Kevin Boothe and Mitch Petrus filled in well, and Boothe has remained in the lineup as Diehl's replacement at left guard. Whether Beatty was overmatched, whether Diehl has been energized by moving back to tackle (as he admitted to me last week he was), or whether Boothe is just a really good run-blocker, the combinations they've been using since the Beatty injury have been more effective than those that were in force for the majority of the season.

If we can get that run game going like we did in that second half, that opens up a lot of windows," Manning said. "For the passing game, it makes the safeties come down and get in the mix and we feel, with our receivers, we will be able to hit some big plays."

The big play Sunday was the 72-yard touchdown throw to Nicks, and had the Giants not been running the ball as well as they were, it may not have happened. When it was over, Coughlin spoke of "balance" in the offense and the importance of sticking with the run even when it's not working.

It's possible there's never been a better macro example of that than this year's Giants, whose running game could not have picked a better time to show up.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A few thoughts on the New York Giants' wild-card round playoff victory over the Atlanta Falcons at MetLife Stadium.

What it means: The Giants' formula worked. They believed they came into the playoffs playing defense and running the ball as well as they have been at any time this season, and they went out and played their best defensive game and best rushing game of the season. They knew that the key would be to pressure Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan with their front four, and they did that. And when they were having trouble in pass protection, they were able to switch to the run game to keep Atlanta's front four off Eli Manning.

Nicks' turn: The Giants' big-play receiver the past few weeks had been Victor Cruz, who had a 99-yard touchdown catch on Christmas Eve against the Jets and a 74-yard touchdown catch last week in the division clincher against the Cowboys. This time, it was Hakeem Nicks who delivered the backbreaker against the Falcons, catching a short Manning pass with less than three minutes left in the third quarter and taking it 72 yards to the end zone for the score that put the Giants up 17-2.

Smothering: New York's defense pitched a shutout, as the Falcons' only points came on a safety, and their offense never got near the end zone. The Giants got pressure up the middle with defensive tackles Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard. They stuffed the Falcons on two key fourth-and-short situations (the second of which almost immediately preceded the big Nicks play). And while they lost two key secondary pieces in Deon Grant and Aaron Ross to injuries, the defensive front made sure Ryan didn't have a chance to take advantage.

Ground game surfaces: The Giants ranked 32nd in the 32-team NFL in rushing yards this season, but this looked like a different team. They'd been better running the ball over the final five games of the season, but this was a dominating rushing performance. Brandon Jacobs ripped off a key 34-yard gain and converted a fourth-and-1 on the Giants' first scoring drive. He and Ahmad Bradshaw split carries, and both ran with power and determination behind an offensive line that has blocked for the run better and better each week.

Looking ahead: Those injuries to Ross and Grant -- which are a concussion and a groin injury, respectively -- could be a problem if they linger into next week. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is far more mobile than Ryan is, and he should be able to buy more time to find his receivers deep in the secondary even if the Giants can pressure him the way they hassled Ryan. But that's a worry for next week. Right now, the Giants are flying high and into the second round.

What's next: The Giants travel to Green Bay, Wis., where they will play the 15-1 defending Super Bowl champion Packers at 4:30 p.m. ET on Jan. 15. A victory would put the Giants in the NFC Championship Game against the Saints or 49ers.

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