NFC East: Julio Jones

Falcons vs. Giants preview

October, 2, 2014

The New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons, a pair of 2013 disappointments with identical 2-2 records and hopes of factoring into their respective division races, play at MetLife Stadium at 1 p.m. ET Sunday. ESPN Giants reporter Dan Graziano and ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure present their preview:

Graziano: Vaughn, I'm going to get to the Falcons' defense in a minute, because I have a ton of questions about that. But I'd be remiss if I didn't start by asking: What was tight end Levine Toilolo doing at right tackle in the loss to Minnesota, and are they going to have five real offensive linemen to suit up for them Sunday?

McClure: The Falcons really had no other choice at the end of the Vikings game after three starting offensive linemen -- center Joe Hawley (ACL), left guard Justin Blalock (back) and right tackle Lamar Holmes (foot) -- exited with injuries. Two other linemen were inactive for the game. So, yes, depth is an issue with Hawley and Holmes on season-ending injured reserve. The good thing for the Falcons is that linemen Gabe Carimi, Peter Konz, Ryan Schraeder and rookie James Stone are capable of playing multiple positions. The Falcons also promoted guard Harland Gunn from the practice squad and signed tackle Cameron Bradfield. Konz's performance will be key as he steps in for Hawley, and the Falcons better hope Blalock's back responds well in preparation for Sunday.

I watched the Giants-Redskins game and was impressed with what the Giants were able to accomplish offensively. Can they sustain such momentum, particularly coming off a couple of extra days of rest?

Graziano: They're hoping so. What the Giants are saying is that the way the offense has looked the past two games represents progress in the new system, and that's why they think it has a chance to be more "real" than what they showed in the first two games. We will see.

What has surprised me is the way the offensive line has held up in pass protection the past two games after looking like a liability in preseason and once the regular season started. If that continues, then Eli Manning -- who's releasing the ball about a half-second faster on average this season due to the shorter drops and quicker reads on which the new system is built -- should be in a strong position to succeed. But since they're not a quick-strike downfield offense right now, I wonder what happens if they fall behind in a game and have to get into a shootout with a high-powered offensive team. The Texans aren't that, and Washington didn't put up a fight. Atlanta has all the weapons, but is the passing game where it needs to be right now in order to take advantage of the talent?

McClure: I think that goes back to our first question, Dan. If quarterback Matt Ryan gets adequate protection, he's one of the elite quarterbacks in this league. But it's hard to get that type of protection when you're using tight ends at right tackle.

Ryan actually has done a marvelous job extending plays with his feet, partly due to increased protection up front in the form of veteran right guard Jon Asamoah and rookie left tackle Jake Matthews. If Ryan can overcome whatever changes are made up front for the Giants, then maybe he’ll get the offense back in high gear. That’s something the Falcons haven’t been able to do on the road, where they’ve dropped four straight. Ryan needs time to find a playmaker such as Julio Jones down the field.

I saw a few unheralded Giants make some plays in the last game. It seems like the Falcons' defense lets no-name players have career games every time out. What do you expect out of some of the Giants' role players?

Graziano: My guess is that you're referring to tight end Larry Donnell, who caught three touchdown passes in Washington. The Giants always believe they can find productivity at tight end on the cheap, so they didn't flinch when everybody was getting on them all offseason for not having one. Donnell runs good routes and can jump high to catch the ball (he's a 6-foot-6 former basketball player), and it's to the coaching staff's credit that that's exactly what they're using him to do. He's not much of a blocker and can't do anything after the catch, but the thing he's good at, he's very good at, and as long as other teams aren't defending it well, they Gians will keep going back to it.

Fundamentally, this offense is built to operate through the run game, and it will continue to do so with an emphasis on Rashad Jennings as the lead back. He and rookie Andre Williams split carries Thursday because Jennings had 34 carries in the game just four days earlier, and they got a big lead and could ease off the gas. But it'll be Jennings to run the ball and set up play-action, and then it'll be Donnell, Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle or whoever's open when they throw it. Short stuff, timing-based stuff, and stuff designed to minimize mistakes and put the unimpressive names they have in the best possible positions to succeed.

Which brings me to this: The Falcons' defense seems to be quite good at putting opposing offenses in position to succeed. Any hope of things getting any better, or is this a defense that's going to struggle all year?

McClure: It's going to be a struggle unless they magically come up with some way to trade for J.J. Watt. There are not enough playmakers on the Falcons' defense, with no elite pass-rusher and no ball hawking defensive back who will create a lot of turnovers. Throw in their defensive leader, strong safety William Moore, being placed on short-term IR with a shoulder injury, and you have the recipe for disaster.

The defense actually looked respectable against Tampa Bay, but that was because the offense got off to a hot start and the Buccaneers were in desperation mode early. There is no excuse for giving up 558 yards to a Vikings team playing without Adrian Peterson and with a rookie quarterback, Teddy Bridgewater. The Falcons continue to struggle with their third-down defense and continue to give up explosive plays. Manning and Jennings, among others, should be itching to put up big numbers against this pathetic defense that gives up a league-worst 8.37 yards passing per play and yields 429.8 yards per game, which is second-to-last in the league.

Defensively, how do you expect the Giants to contend with Jones, Devin Hester and Antone Smith?

Graziano: The Giants made a change at free safety last week, benching Stevie Brown for Quintin Demps, who was signed as a kick returner and has good speed on the back end. That change was made because Brown was struggling, but also with an eye toward the speed matchups they had coming up on the schedule -- DeSean Jackson last week, the guys you mention this week, and Jeremy Maclin and the Eagles next week.

Demps will play in the post while Antrel Rolle can move up in the box, and they'll likely plaster cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on Jones and use Prince Amukamara on whoever the second receiver is. Trumaine McBride, who was a starter last season, has replaced the injured Walter Thurmond as the nickel. McBride is a high-effort guy, but you can win physical matchups against him. The Giants rely on Rodgers-Cromartie's and Amukamara's ability to hold up in man coverage, but they believe they have enough speed with Demps and weakside linebacker Jacquian Williams to help supplement that as needed. If Rodgers-Cromartie is limited this week with his thigh injury, that could affect things. But as of now, that's the plan.

Good stuff, Vaughn, thanks. Travel safe, and I'll see you Sunday.

Giants will be shorthanded in Atlanta

December, 14, 2012
The New York Giants have ruled out running back Ahmad Bradshaw, cornerback Prince Amukamara and safety Kenny Phillips for Sunday's critical game against the Falcons in Atlanta due to their injuries. All of the injuries are major as the Giants try to become the first visiting team to win in the Georgia Dome this year and hold off the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East race.

The significance of Phillips' absence has been somewhat overlooked this year due to the playmaking ability of his replacement, Stevie Brown, who has seven interceptions. But Phillips is a top all-around safety without whom the Giants' coverage units, run defense and even pass rush struggle to a greater extent than they do when he plays.

Amukamara has been a big part of making that better. In a down year for Corey Webster, Amukamara has emerged as the Giants' best cornerback. Playing against the No. 4-ranked pass offense in the league, the Giants will replace him with rookie Jayron Hosley. The Giants may be getting a bit of a reciprocal injury break, as star Falcons wide receiver Roddy White has missed the last three days of practice with a knee injury and is questionable for the game. But Atlanta still comes with Julio Jones at wide receiver and Tony Gonzalez at tight end, and each is very dangerous as a target for quarterback Matt Ryan.

Which speaks to the idea of keeping Ryan and the Atlanta passing attack off the field -- something the Giants could have a more difficult time doing with their running game banged up. Wilson ran for 100 yards last week against the Saints, and that along with his performance this year on kick returns has some Giants fans excited that he's finally getting a chance as the starter. But while he's looked more explosive than Bradshaw has this year, that's no guarantee he can hold up for a whole game as the starter, grinding out yards between the tackles and picking up blitzes in the backfield to help protect Eli Manning. Wilson is a rookie, the Saints have the worst run defense in the league, and he's likely to find a going tougher this week in Atlanta. With Andre Brown out for the season due to a broken leg, the only two backs the Giants have on the roster besides Wilson are Ryan Torain and Kregg Lumpkin.

Now, very often, when the Giants have these kinds of games in which it looks as though injuries could do them in, they toughen up and play even better. The regular-season game in New England last season is among the most prominent recent examples, along with the game earlier this year in Carolina that Bradshaw and Hakeem Nicks had to miss. So there's no reason to think these injuries mean the Giants can't beat the 11-2 Falcons. They're just going to have a harder time doing it than they'd have if they had all of those important starters healthy.

Better to receive: A Friday debate post

December, 14, 2012
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.

How you feeling? Cowboys-Falcons

November, 4, 2012
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.

Rapid Reaction: Falcons 30, Eagles 17

October, 28, 2012

PHILADELPHIA -- A few thoughts from the Philadelphia Eagles' pancake-flat loss to the still-unbeaten Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.

What it means: Big trouble for Eagles coach Andy Reid, who's got a mandate to produce a winning record this year and now must win six of his final nine games in order to accomplish that. This is the first time in his 14 seasons as Eagles head coach that Reid has lost a game immediately following a bye week, and the worst part of this day was that his team looked completely uninspired. Two weeks after Reid fired his defensive coordinator in a clear desperation move, the defense played its worst game of the season as the Falcons scored on each of their first six possessions and ran away with the game.

Helpless: The Eagles' defense allowed an 80-yard, 16-play, 8:44 touchdown drive to begin the game. They gave up a 63-yard touchdown bomb to Julio Jones on the Falcons' third offensive possession. Atlanta scored touchdowns on each of its first three drives and field goals on the next three. Cedric Thornton, of all people, broke through in the third quarter to get to Matt Ryan and record the Eagles' first sack of October. But there was precious little pressure when it mattered, too many drive-extending penalties in the secondary, and in general, Ryan and the Falcons looked as though they were well ahead of the Eagles on almost every play. Atlanta did not punt until there was 5:35 left on the game clock in the fourth quarter.

Offensively speaking: The Falcons dominated the time of possession for the first three quarters, so the Eagles' offense didn't get much of a chance to affect the competitive portion of the game. And for just the second time this season, they did not commit a turnover. Still, there wasn't much to love about what the Eagles did or tried to do on offense. The line is a mess, obviously, down three starters now with right guard Danny Watkins hurt and inactive for the game. But they didn't start feeding the ball to running back LeSean McCoy until the fourth quarter, and doing so earlier in the game might be a good way to ameliorate the line's problems and keep the pass rush away.

What's next: The Eagles travel to New Orleans next week, where they'll try to get back to .500 against the Saints on "Monday Night Football." New Orleans has won two games in a row following an 0-4 start and plays the Broncos in Denver on Sunday night.

Halftime thoughts: Eagles look a mess

October, 28, 2012
PHILADELPHIA -- Well, it appears as though Juan Castillo was not the Philadelphia Eagles' problem.

Eagles coach Andy Reid fired Castillo 12 days ago and replaced him as defensive coordinator with Todd Bowles. But in their first game after the bye week, the Eagles' defense has been tissue-paper soft, allowing the Atlanta Falcons to score on them in almost every conceivable way en route to a 24-7 halftime deficit.

Atlanta opened the game with an 80-yard touchdown drive that took 8:44 off the clock, then got the ball back almost immediately and took 4:18 more off the clock to score a second touchdown. And after the Eagles mounted a long drive of their own to cut the score to 14-7, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan hit Julio Jones for a 63-yard touchdown pass for the Falcons' third touchdown.

If there's any good news at all it's that the Eagles haven't turned the ball over (mainly because they've barely had it), and that they finally did get a third-down stop on the Falcons' final drive of the half, limiting the unbeaten Falcons to a field goal. And the Eagles do get the ball to start the second half. But none of that is going to matter if the defense can't find a way to get off the field. The Falcons were 6-for-7 on third down in the first half, and that doesn't even count the brutal Jason Babin defensive holding penalty that kept the opening drive alive on a third-down play.

Ryan was 17-for-20 for 197 yards in the first half. Six different Falcons have caught passes, three for touchdowns. The Falcons appear to be picking on Nnamdi Asomugha, who was beaten by Jones for the long touchdown, but Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and linebacker Mychal Kendricks have had plenty of their own problems in coverage, especially with penalties. The Eagles still don't have a sack.

All in all, the Falcons have so far looked like the best team in the league (which, the records say, they are), and the Eagles have looked confused. Castillo's firing was a desperate act by Reid, especially considering that his offense had been a bigger problem in the first six games than his defense had. A loss would drop the Eagles to 3-4 in a season in which they almost certainly need to reach the playoffs in order to save Reid's job. He is 13-0 in his career in games immediately following the bye week, but right now he needs a monster second-half comeback to make that 14-0. And if he doesn't, the firings that happen after this season might not be his call.
The Washington Redskins' secondary looked considerably better in coverage in Sunday's loss to the Atlanta Falcons than it had in its previous three games. When I broke down the tape via NFL Game Rewind to try and figure out why, I came to the conclusion that the help the defensive backs are getting from the linebackers is the key to their coverage schemes.

Outgunned and outmanned most weeks in the secondary, the Redskins rely on a variety of pre-snap looks and changing coverages to confuse and outwit more talented offensive players. Sometimes they play off the outside receivers and press the slot guy. Sometimes they press all three. They use their inside linebackers in coverage liberally, but they like to line them up so that it's not readily apparent to the defense who's going where. And the key to the whole thing may be the way they use their best pass-rusher, outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, to help in coverage. He did it a lot Sunday, and one of the plays on which it stood out to me was a second-and-three from the Atlanta 41-yard line with a little over a minute left in the first quarter. It's a play on which Kerrigan disrupts a receiver at the line and still gets into coverage to help break up the eventual throw.

[+] EnlargeRyan Kerrigan
AP Photo/Tom DiPaceWashington has been relying on linebacker Ryan Kerrigan to drop back into coverage.
Pre-snap on the right side of the line, Redskins cornerback Josh Wilson lines up over Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones. Kerrigan is on that side as well, lined up tight to the line looking as though he'll rush the passer. Instead, he pulls a move he repeats several times during the game -- faking a step inside and then dropping into coverage.

When the ball is snapped, Jones immediately breaks inside across the middle and Wilson drops deep up the field. The key is, as soon as Jones turns inside, he's met by Kerrigan, who gives him just enough of a bump to slow him down. Kerrigan and Jones don't stay together long, but I believe the little bump is significant. At this time, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is comfortable in the pocket, looking downfield as he goes through his progression. He's looking to his left, and Jones has not yet entered his field of vision. My belief is that Jones might have done so sooner but for the Kerrigan rub, and Ryan might have hit him for a completion that Jones could have turned into a big gain.

Instead, just before Jones would have caught Ryan's eye, the pocket breaks down a bit, forcing Ryan to move his feet and turn his head to the right. I don't think he ever sees Jones. By this point, Kerrigan is deep in coverage, trailing running back Michael Turner, who is running a route. Wilson is deep and the Redskins have extra defenders on that side with Ryan apparently committed there.

By the time Ryan makes a hurried throw, Kerrigan is positioned equidistant between Turner and another Falcons receiver (I can't tell who it is) and could break and make a play on either one. He also has Wilson and plenty of other help behind him. Ryan chooses Turner, and the pass is incomplete on second-and-three. The Falcons gain only two yards on the next play and have to punt.

This is just one example of something Kerrigan was able to do in coverage to assist the Redskins' outmanned secondary in covering some of the best wide receivers in the league. There's a third-and-seven play on the previous Falcons possession on which defensive back Richard Crawford plays way off Roddy White on the right side and Kerrigan again does his, step-forward-then-immediately-drop-back move into coverage. He trails White upfield while inside linebacker Perry Riley also swings over to that side, and with Crawford deep they have White triangulated. Kerrigan doesn't stay with White and really doesn't have to. It appears that seeing him there is enough to rattle Ryan into a low, short, incomplete throw.

The flip side of this, of course, is that on plays on which he drops into coverage, Kerrigan can't rush the passer. And that hurts the Redskins' pass rush for obvious reasons. But in Sunday's game, it appears Washington wanted to prioritize coverage on White and Jones and, to some extent, tight end Tony Gonzalez (who was often covered one-on-one, and at times by Kerrigan!). The result, with Kerrigan and his fellow linebackers adhering well to their responsibilities in their zones and when asked to help double, was Washington's best coverage game since the season opener in New Orleans. Going forward, it appears the success of their coverages will rise and fall on the help they can give their cornerbacks. And with strong safety Brandon Meriweather sidelined for a while yet, the linebackers are the ones that are going to have to offer the bulk of that help.

How you feeling? Redskins-Falcons

October, 7, 2012
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.

Wrap-up: Redskins 24, Buccaneers 22

September, 30, 2012

A few thoughts on the Washington Redskins' white-knuckle 24-22 victory over the Buccaneers in Tampa Bay on Sunday.

What it means: There's a pretty good reason the Redskins are OK with not having another first-round draft pick until 2015. Rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III continues to impress as he helps lift the Redskins to 2-2. For the game, he completed 26-of-35 passes for 323 yards and no interceptions. He rushed for 43 yards and a touchdown on seven carries. He got the ball back on his own 20-yard line, down by a point with 1:42 left in the game and he marched the Redskins 56 yards into field-goal range, whence Billy Cundiff hit the game-winning 41-yarder. What you want from your quarterback is for him to give you the confidence he can bring you back and win a game late, and Griffin has the first fourth-quarter comeback victory of his young career.

Bentley rolls on: The Redskins' other star rookie on offense, sixth-round pick Alfred Morris, rolled up 113 yards on 21 carries, including a 39-yard touchdown run in the second quarter that built the Washington lead to 21-3. Morris has a lock on the starting running back job in Washington, as newly signed Ryan Grant wasn't even active and is clearly on the roster only for depth. Morris would have to get injured or see his play drop off dramatically for him to lose the job.

On defense: Ryan Kerrigan is a complete animal, and he led the high-pressure first-half assault on Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman. When the Redskins were pressuring Freeman early, he couldn't find open receivers and the Redskins' coverage issues on the back end were masked. When the Bucs stepped up their protection in the second half and Freeman had time to throw, he was able to exploit mismatches in the secondary with wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams against the Redskins' defensive backs. It's pretty simple, really. The Redskins' defense requires pressure in order to succeed.

Redemption... barely: You have to wonder if Cundiff would have been back next week if the kick had hooked any farther left. He'd already missed from 41 and 31 yards (and 57, but whatever) in the game, and his misses left the door open for Tampa Bay to mount its comeback. The Redskins got Cundiff (and cut Graham Gano) because of his ability to deliver touchbacks on kickoffs. But as much as NFL coaches prize field position in the kicking game, they almost certainly assumed he'd at least be reliable on field goals. Could be one bad game, but if the trend continues, the Redskins may have to sacrifice something on the kickoffs and look elsewhere for a more reliable kicker. It appears they're going to be in a lot of close games.

What's next: The Redskins play host to the 4-0 Atlanta Falcons on Sunday in Landover, Md. Having allowed 326.3 passing yards per game so far this season, they will try and stop Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Julio Jones and an Atlanta passing game that's one of the deadliest in the league. They'll also be looking to break a seven-game home losing streak.

Final Word: Falcons at Giants

January, 6, 2012
Wild-Card Final Word: Bengals-Texans | Lions-Saints | Falcons-Giants | Steelers-Broncos

Three nuggets of knowledge about Sunday's Falcons-Giants wild-card round game:

[+] EnlargeMatt Ryan
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireMatt Ryan has played much better against standard pressure in the second half of the season, throwing 12 TDs and no picks.
There's no place like home ... or is there? From 1990 to 2003, the first 14 years after the NFL expanded the playoffs to include 12 teams, home teams were a combined 41-15 in this wild-card round. But over the past seven seasons, home teams have a record of just 13-15 in this round. Will the New York Giants have a home-field advantage over the Atlanta Falcons come Sunday? Well, it'll be cold, but not horribly so. is currently showing a forecast high of 45 degrees and a zero-percent chance of precipitation for Sunday -- so about the best for which a dome team like Atlanta could hope traveling north this time of year. The Giants were just 4-4 at home this year (though they did win a "road" game in their home stadium on Christmas Eve against the Jets), and the Falcons were 4-4 on the road. So that doesn't really tell us much, does it?

Ryan versus the rush: Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan isn't likely to see a lot of blitzes Sunday, since the Giants' defense relies on its four down linemen to pressure the quarterback. That's likely fine with Ryan. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Ryan has thrown 12 touchdown passes and no interceptions when the opponent rushes four or fewer over the past seven games. In his first nine games of this season, Ryan had nine touchdowns and eight interceptions in such situations. That likely means the line is blocking better for him and he's not making as many bad decisions under pressure as a result. We shall see if Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul can buck the trend.

Big-play dudes: In Julio Jones and Victor Cruz, the Falcons and the Giants have two of the best receivers in the league at making things happen after they catch the ball. Jones, the Falcons' rookie from Alabama, ranked first in the NFL this year among qualified receivers with 7.6 yards per catch after the reception. Cruz, the Giants' second-year breakout star, was second in the league in yards after the catch with 601 and third in the league with 7.3 yards per catch after the reception. Cruz was second in the league with nine catches of 40 or more yards, second only to Detroit's Calvin Johnson. Jones was tied for fourth in that category with seven such catches. That all comes courtesy of the "Next Level" stats we get every week from ESPN Stats & Information.

Quick Take: Falcons at Giants

January, 1, 2012
Three things to know about next Sunday’s Atlanta Falcons-New York Giants wild-card game:

1. Another aerial assault. The Giants’ secondary has struggled throughout the second half of this season, and things don’t get any easier with the Falcons coming to town. Entering play Sunday, Atlanta ranked seventh in the league in pass yards per game and just 20th in rush yards per game. They like to throw the ball, and quarterback Matt Ryan has a variety of downfield options in wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones along with ageless tight end Tony Gonzalez. They run enough with Michael Turner to keep a defense honest, and they’re 22-3 over the past four seasons when Turner rushes for at least 100 yards. But the main problem for the Giants will be making sure to get everybody covered in the passing game.

2. King of the road. Used to be, Ryan was at his best at home in the Georgia Dome. But this year, Ryan’s been a more effective passer on the road -- at least when throwing deep. Entering Sunday’s home finale, in which he threw two touchdowns on 6-for-9 passing before coming out of the blowout game, Ryan’s completion percentage on deep throws was 42.9 on the road compared to 36.5 at home. And his Total QBR on deep throws on the road was 94.8 versus 54.0 at home. ESPN Stats & Information informs us that that’s the largest disparity in the league in that category. Expect Ryan and the Falcons to take some shots downfield and not to be intimidated by MetLife Stadium.

3. Head-to-head history. The Giants are 10-10 all-time against the Falcons and have won three in a row against them, but they haven’t seen them since Nov. 22, 2009, when the two teams hooked up in a wild game at the old Giants Stadium. New York coughed up a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter but ended up winning in overtime. Eli Manning had 384 yards and three touchdowns in that game. Atlanta has overhauled its past defense over the past couple of years, but they’ve been banged-up in the secondary and can be thrown on, as the Saints proved last Monday Night.

NFC East links: QB chatter in Dallas

April, 28, 2011
Dallas Cowboys

The Oklahoman's Berry Tramel: "Why not start now in preparing for life without [Tony] Romo? Why not draft a quarterback in a later round, when the price is not so high and when he might have a shot at being the best of the crop, no matter who he is."

Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News says if he was calling the shots for the Cowboys, he wouldn't make a deal to put the team in position to draft Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert.

New York Giants

Getting younger on the offensive line is something veteran guard Rich Seubert is used to hearing this time of year.

Former Florida offensive lineman Mike Pouncey is on the Giants' radar heading into the draft.

Philadelphia Eagles

Les Bowen breaks down the Eagles' overall needs as the draft kicks off Thursday night.

Jonathan Tamari of the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Whatever the Eagles plan to do with the 23rd pick in Thursday's draft, recent history says it will be surprising and less conventional than simply waiting to choose from the remaining talent when their turn rolls around."

Washington Redskins

Coach Mike Shanahan said Wednesday that he is open to trading down from his team's current No. 10 spot in the first round of the draft.

The Washington Post's Mike Wise says the Redskins should draft Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones or trade down.

Draft Watch: NFC East

April, 21, 2011
NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: Dream scenario/Plan B.

Dallas Cowboys

Dream scenario: If the Cowboys play things the conventional way and sit tight at No. 9, they’ll probably be looking at either defensive end J.J. Watt or offensive tackle Tyron Smith. Either one would provide good value or fill a big need, and the Cowboys would improve. But Dallas owner Jerry Jones doesn’t always do things the conventional way. Although trading up to the top five might be difficult, Jones’ imagination could heat up if LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson makes it past the first five picks. The entire Dallas secondary had a horrible year last season, and Peterson would provide an instant upgrade. Jones might not be able to sit still if he’s within striking distance of Peterson.

Plan B: If there’s no chance at Peterson and the Cowboys aren’t excited enough about Watt or Smith, they could reach slightly and take Nebraska cornerback Prince Amukamara. He’s the second-best cornerback in this draft, and most mocks have him going somewhere in the teens. If the Cowboys like the player enough, it wouldn’t be much of a reach to just take him. If another team is looking to move up for another player, the Cowboys could drop down a few spots and still have a shot at Amukamara.

Washington Redskins

Dream scenario: The Redskins, who need a quarterback perhaps more than any other team on the planet, would love nothing more than for something bizarre to suddenly cause Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert to start falling. It’s not out of the realm of possibility. Carolina’s leaning toward Newton but hasn’t made a final decision. Even if the Panthers go with Newton, Buffalo could go with linebacker Von Miller at No. 3, and the word out of Arizona is the Cardinals probably are looking more for a pass-rusher than a quarterback. That would put the Redskins within striking distance on Gabbert, and general manager Bruce Allen and owner Daniel Snyder could try to move up to grab him. Or they could just take a chance that he’ll be available at No. 10.

Plan B: If Newton and Gabbert are gone, there’s no quarterback worthy of the No. 10 pick. Defensive tackle also is a major need, but the Redskins could fill that in free agency. Snyder enjoys making a splash, and if he can’t do it with a quarterback, he might do the next-best thing and take a guy who would catch passes from whoever ends up throwing them. With Santana Moss as a free agent and not much else in the receiving corps, Alabama’s Julio Jones could be a very nice consolation prize.

New York Giants

Dream scenario: The desperate need is at outside linebacker, but the only player who is really a sure thing is Miller, and he almost certainly will be a top-five pick. So the dream ends there and reality sets in, and the other reality is the Giants have big needs on the offensive line, where everyone but guard Chris Snee is starting to get old. Florida center/guard Mike Pouncey could really solidify the interior of the line, where the need is greatest. Tackles Gabe Carimi and Anthony Castonzo also could be possibilities as the Giants could consider moving tackle David Diehl to guard.

Plan B: This may sound a bit off the wall because the Giants have decent running backs in Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs. But what if Alabama’s Mark Ingram happens to be available? The Giants might have to consider him. He might be better than Bradshaw and Jacobs. Also, along the same lines, don’t rule out the possibility of a defensive tackle like Temple’s Muhammad Wilkerson if he’s available. The Giants appear to be in good shape in the middle of the defensive line, but general manager Jerry Reese places a high value on having lots of depth, especially in the middle of the defensive line.

Philadelphia Eagles

Dream scenario: In a perfect world, the Eagles would package their first pick (No. 23 overall) with quarterback Kevin Kolb and trade their way into the top five, where they would aim for cornerback Peterson. The Eagles have a desperate need for a cornerback to play opposite Asante Samuel, and Peterson is the only sure thing in this draft. But this is not a perfect world. Unless the lockout somehow ends between now and the start of the draft, they’re not allowed to trade Kolb. If they stay put, the Eagles have to hope Amukamara somehow falls to them, or they might have to take a chance on Colorado’s Jimmy Smith, who comes with some background questions.

Plan B: The right side of the offensive line needs to be upgraded. Most teams stay clear of guards in the first round. But tackles Castonzo, Nate Solder and Carimi all could be available when the Eagles pick. Any one of them could step right into the lineup and start.

NFC East links: Romo planning workouts

April, 19, 2011
Dallas Cowboys

Quarterback Tony Romo is making plans with his teammates to organize workouts during the lockout.

Are Marion Barber's days as a member of the Cowboys numbered?

New York Giants

Alfred F. Kelly Jr., the former president of American Express, will lead the committee organizing the New York-area Super Bowl in 2014.

Giants vice president of medical services Ronnie Barnes says the league's medical staffs have been accepting of the NFL's standards regarding concussions.

Philadelphia Eagles

Moving the Chains examines the state of the Eagles at running back heading into the draft.

How Stewart Bradley's concussion was handled helped change NFL rules regarding head injuries.

Washington Redskins

The Donovan McNabb trade rumors continue to circulate, with the Vikings as an interested suitor.

Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones paid a visit to Redskins Park.