One win in their final two games will lock up home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs for the Atlanta Falcons. While skeptics have pointed to a weak schedule and consistently good luck, Sunday's 34-0 pasting of the Giants begs the question: is Atlanta the Super Bowl favorite?
There is no doubt the Falcons have benefited from playing at least 11, likely 12, and perhaps as many as 13 of their 14 games against opposition that will not be in this year’s playoffs. However, the two best teams Atlanta has played they have handled. Denver came to the Georgia Dome in Week 2 and the Falcons took advantage of three early Peyton Manning interceptions in a 27-21 win. Sunday's performance against New York was eye opening.
Atlanta dominated the Giants in every phase of the game. The Falcons out-gained New York 394-256, caused three turnovers without committing any, finished nine of 13 on third down conversion tries, and quarterback Matt Ryan was close to perfect. In leading his team to a 12-2 mark, Ryan went 23 of 28 through the air for 270 yards and three touchdowns. Eight Falcons caught passes in the game with Ryan making good decisions when top targets were covered. Harry Douglas led the Falcons with 83 yards receiving on three catches. The defense was just as good as the Atlanta offense.
Giants QB Eli Manning never got comfortable against an Atlanta defense that ranks just 20th in the league. The reigning Super Bowl MVP was picked off twice, and completed only 13 passes. Manning's favorite receiver Victor Cruz was held to a season low 15 yards on three catches. Atlanta held the ball for nearly 39 minutes in a complete reversal of last year's playoff game in New York when the Giants manhandled Atlanta.
As impressive as Sunday's win was, this is the same Falcons squad that lost to Carolina two weeks ago, and six times this season has won games that it took some fortune to triumph in. Two weeks after Peyton Manning spotted the Falcons a 20-0 lead in their victory over Denver, the Falcons scored twice against Carolina in the final five minutes. Without Cam Newton's late fumble a win would have been unlikely. Robert Griffin III went down during Atlanta's 24-17 win at Washington in October. It took a defensive touchdown and 55-yard field goal on the final play to beat Oakland in week six. Despite Ryan's five interceptions, Atlanta still beat anemic Arizona November 18. Finally, three weeks ago Drew Brees tossed five interceptions in a game New Orleans dominated in all phases but turnovers.
Atlanta's recent playoff history, 0-3 since 2004 with lopsided loses each of the past two seasons, gives legitimate reason to wait and see how the Falcons perform this postseason before anointing them the best team in the league. Their schedule has been weak, and they have benefited from good fortune. That being said, the Falcons are 7-0 at home, dominated the first solid team they've played in weeks, and Ryan has elevated his play to the point where it would be no shocker if he hoists the Lombardi Trophy.