Giants, Falcons Ready To Receive on SundayIn order to compete and win in today’s NFL, a top-flight quarterback and some big-time playmakers he can target on a regular basis are absolute necessities.
The fifth-seeded Atlanta Falcons (10-6) and the fourth-seeded the New York Giants (9-7) have both as they get ready to square off against each other in an NFC wild-card playoff matchup at MetLife Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
Not only do both teams have those components driving their offenses, but they mirror each other very closely.
The Falcons rely on a pair of talented first-round draft picks in wide receivers Roddy White (selected 27th overall, out of UAB, in 2005) and rookie Julio Jones, who starred at Alabama before he was taken sixth overall in April.
The Giants counter with their own first-round pick (Hakeem Nicks, taken 29th overall, out of North Carolina, in 2009) and an undrafted free agent who’s playing like one, in salsa-dancing sensation Victor Cruz, who initially made his name in a more low profile manner than the other three big receivers in Sunday’s game, playing at the FCS level, for Massachusetts.
Cruz, while shorter on his college pedigree, is just as long on talent as the other three aforementioned receivers, and he’s no stranger to setting or challenging records in a short amount of playing time.
The 6-foot, 204-pound speedster with a knack for turning routine, short gains into long, game-breaking touchdowns, finished fourth on the UMass all-time receptions list with 131 career catches, despite not starting a game until his junior season.
At the next level, he’s been one of the league’s best stories of the 2011 NFL season, going from a rookie who played in just three games without a reception last year, to an electrifying, record-smashing receiver this season.
Cruz’s 82 catches led the Giants and ranked fifth in the NFL this year, but it’s his ability to gain yardage after the catch that can wreak havoc on opposing defenses.
His average of 7.4 yards after the catch was second only to his counterpart on Sunday – Jones (7.9 YAC) – for receivers with over 40 catches this season, and his 18.7 average yards per catch was third-best in the league.
In his first full season in the league, Cruz already set the Giants’ all-time single-season mark for receiving yards with 1,536, which was the third-most in the league this year. Cruz’s 96 receiving yards per game ranked fourth in the NFL.
A game-turning 99-yard touchdown reception by Cruz, which should have merely been an 11-yard gain for a first down in an important win over the New York Jets two weeks ago, set a franchise record for the longest pass reception in Giants’ history.
Last week, Cruz, a New Jersey product who grew up a huge Dallas Cowboys fan, turned a short screen pass into a 74-yard touchdown (his ninth this season) that set the tone for the Giants’ NFC East division-clinching win over Dallas. That score was Cruz’s fifth touchdown of at least 65 yards this season, the most of any NFL receiver in the Super Bowl era.
Whatever Cruz may do against the Falcons’ defense, Atlanta will try to answer with Jones, who helped lead Alabama to the 2010 national championship as an All-American, two years after he became the first true freshman to start at receiver in the long, storied history of the program.
Thus, expectations were high for Jones, even as a rookie this season, especially after the Falcons traded five draft picks to the Cleveland Browns to move up to draft him.
So far, he’s delivered, even while missing four games with injury issues this year.
Even while missing a quarter of the regular season, the long-haired, 6-foot-3, 220-pound Alabama native who possesses a rare blend of size, strength, speed, jumping ability, and agility still caught 54 balls for 959 yards, and he ranked seventh in the league with an average of 17.8 yards per catch.
Jones has also found a propensity for finding the end zone of late, with six of his eight touchdown receptions coming in the past four weeks.
While the youngsters, Cruz and Jones, have turned heads, White and Nicks are the more experienced go-to receivers for the Falcons and Giants, respectively.
In his seventh season, the 6-foot, 211-pound White has become one of the game’s best.
A pro bowler each of the past three seasons, White has recorded more receiving yards than any receiver in the league over that time.
After becoming the Falcons’ first 1,000-yard receiver since 1999, in 2007, White set Atlanta’s all-time single-season receiving yards record with 1,389 yards last year.
This season, his 1,296 receiving yards were the sixth-most in the NFL, and his 100 receptions were second only to the 122 recorded by New England’s Wes Welker.
Once he catches the ball however, he can often be wrapped up, as he averaged 13 yards per catch and just 3.8 yards after the catch this year.
The Giants’ response to White will be Nicks, who while missing one game to an injury this year, ranked tenth in the league with 1,192 receiving yards and 11th in the NFL with 76 receptions this season. Nicks, in his third season, was held to just 4.8 yards after the catch, but the 6-1, 208-pound receiver with good strength, a burst of speed, and normally good hands, produced a solid 15.7 yards per reception for the season.
Of course, for all that receiving success to be possible, each team has to have a good quarterback, and this season, the Falcons’ Matt Ryan and the Giants’ Eli Manning have each had career years, with each former first-round pick throwing for a club record in passing yards.
Ryan has completed 61.3 percent of his passes for 4,177 yards, a career-high 29 touchdown passes, and 12 interceptions.
Manning, who threw a career-high 25 interceptions last season, limited that number to 16 this year while tossing 29 touchdown passes, including an NFL-record 15 in the fourth quarter, while throwing for 4,933 yards, and leading an NFL-high six fourth-quarter comebacks that all became late Giant victories.
The Falcons will try to mix in Michael Turner, the NFL’s third-leading rusher this season, to help ease the pressure on Ryan while the Giants look to dial up a different kind of pressure with one of the league’s best pass rushes.
New York has the NFL’s lowest-rated rushing attack, but it’s one that has picked up in recent weeks behind running backs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. Although, the Giants figure to be hard-pressed to be able to run effectively on the NFL’s sixth-best run defense.
Either way, Manning will be looking to make the same plays that he has all season. He still has third receiver Mario Manningham (who’s capable of the occasional big play. Manning will also be getting back valuable tight end Jake Ballard from injury this week to help counter what Ryan will try to do with veteran future hall of fame tight end Tony Gonzalez.
Other factors, such as the turnover battle and special teams will also play significant roles on Sunday, as well.
But, it’s safe to say that whichever team’s pair of main receivers – White/Jones or Nicks/Cruz – has the better day, will be the team moving on to the divisional round of the playoffs next week.