- Ohm Youngmisuk, ESPNNewYork.com
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Osi Umenyiora called it "rude."
The Atlanta Falcons had the nerve to go for it on a fourth-and-1 at the New York Giants' 24-yard line to start the second quarter. And after a lot of moving and shifting at the line, quarterback Matt Ryan had his sneak attempt stuffed for no gain.
"On fourth-and-1 and fourth-and-inches, if you go for it and a team stuffs you, I mean, how do you respond [to] that?" Umenyiora asked.
If that stop fired up Tom Coughlin's defense, the Giants felt insulted and must've wondered how Atlanta head coach Mike Smith could have the audacity to try it again by going for fourth-and-1 at the Giants' 21, down 10-2 in the third quarter with an empty backfield.
Ryan again tried to gain a few inches and he ran into a blue brick wall.
The Giants' defense, which could not stop the likes of the Redskins and Seahawks, delivered its finest performance of the season and smothered the Falcons in a 24-2 wild-card rout.
The Giants slowly strangled the life out of Atlanta's offense with the Falcons' only points coming on an intentional grounding safety on Eli Manning in the second quarter.
Perry Fewell's unit, which struggled during the season to compensate for injuries to key players, held Atlanta to 247 yards of total offense and took the life out of the Falcons with those two key fourth-and-1 stops.
"It is tough to recover from that if it happens over and over again," Umenyiora said. "It is basically a team telling you that they are stronger than you and you are not going to run this ball on us. Once that happens, it is only downhill from there for the opposing team."
Right now, the Giants' defensive front four is coming at offensive lines as if it is running downhill -- and it's not just the fearsome defensive ends. The Giants employed three defensive tackles (Chris Canty, Linval Joseph and Rocky Bernard) at times to stop the run. Ryan, who was sacked twice and hit seven times, never looked comfortable, at times looking a bit like Mark Sanchez did against this defense a few weeks ago.
In their past three wins, the Giants have held the Jets', Cowboys' and Falcons' offenses to a total of 30 points. The pass rush has 13 sacks in those victories and the confidence grows with each sack, turnover, stop and win. And running against the Giants has become awfully difficult all of a sudden. New York has allowed a total of 113 yards rushing in the past two games. The G-Men also had a fourth-and-1 stop in the fourth quarter on a Tony Romo sneak at the Giants' 10-yard line in the win over the Cowboys.
"[Teams] are going to have to find something else to do," Umenyiora said. "Running the ball, we have too many monsters. I think it just took us a while to finally get everything going but I think we are in sync as far as the rushing game. If all [teams] can do is pass the ball, then they are going to be in trouble."
The Giants now face a team that has the best aerial attack outside of New Orleans. The defending Super Bowl champion Packers welcome the Giants to Lambeau, but it's as if the Giants want this matchup. It was their 38-35 loss to the Packers there on Dec. 4 that seemed to embolden this team. After taking Aaron Rodgers down to a last-second field goal, the Giants learned they could play against anybody when they are right.
Coughlin's team has won four of its five games since that defeat and the defense has improved tremendously, getting better and better in each of the past three wins. The Giants were stifling in almost every facet defensively on Sunday. The first goal was to shut down running back Michael Turner, who gained just 41 yards on the ground on 15 carries.
Then the Giants' defense was able to focus on pressuring Ryan and slowing down the fast Falcons receiving duo of Roddy White and Julio Jones. The two combined for 12 receptions. White is capable of catching that many in one game. Jones, the speedy rookie with scary deep-play ability, didn't have a catch longer than 20 yards. And veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez was a non-factor with four catches for 44 yards.
The Giants were already confident that Eli Manning, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks could keep them in any game in the midst of Manning's best season to date. But when the defense plays the way it is playing, the Giants see the potential to be better than the 2007 Super Bowl team.
"We got a lot of similarities," defensive captain Justin Tuck said. "Pass rush, veteran D-line, our secondary is playing awesome right now, our linebackers are filling gaps. Eli is obviously playing at another level than what he was in '07. We got a little more weaponry on offense. We might be a better team just by the numbers looking at it than '07. But Green Bay is better than they were in '07."
But the Giants' defense is better than the one Green Bay saw more than a month ago. The communication breakdowns and lapses in the secondary have been corrected. The Giants look like a cohesive defensive unit, which no one would dare say when Vince Young was leading an 18-play, game-winning drive against them, or Drew Brees was humiliating them in New Orleans in November.
The last time the Giants played the Packers, Rodgers threw for four touchdowns and needed only five plays to go 68 yards in 58 seconds for the game-winning field goal.
And now Rodgers faces the Giants in his house with a week's rest. Going from defending against Ryan to trying to stop Rodgers and his arsenal of receiving weapons is like switching from standard- to high-definition television. There's no comparison.
But if Coughlin's defense plays like it did on Sunday, the Giants might be rude playoff guests in Lambeau again.
"We played outstanding defense," Coughlin said. "That set the tone for everything else. If we can continue to play defense like that, we can make ourselves heard in this tournament."
Osi Umenyiora called the Falcons "rude." And the Giants made them pay.