EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey // Anyone looking for the big play this weekend should turn on the NFC wild-card game with the Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants. There are bound to be a few of them at MetLife Stadium tonight.
Start with the Falcons (10-6) and Matt Ryan. While the running back Michael Turner and the receiver Roddy White move the chains, Ryan has developed a big-play chemistry with his rookie receiver Julio Jones. The two have combined on eight touchdowns. The shortest has been 17 yards and there are four over 48 yards.
The big combo for the Giants (9-7) is Eli Manning and the rising second-year star Victor Cruz. The two have combined on five touchdowns of 68 yards or more, including a league record-tying 99-yarder against the New York Jets two weeks ago.
The big-play nature of the two offences is not surprising in this season dominated by the quarterbacks and the offences.
A record 11,356 points were scored, with games averaging 44.4 points, the highest average in 46 seasons (46.1 in 1965).
"A lot of times, you do what you have to do," Tom Coughlin, the Giants coach, said.
While Ryan and Manning have had career seasons, the big-play nature of their game has been unexpected. Much of the credit for that goes to Jones and Cruz.
Atlanta moved up to No 11 in the NFL Draft this spring to grab Jones from Alabama. They have not regretted it. His 54 catches for 959 yards and eight touchdowns led all NFL rookies.
Having Jones has forced opposing defences to pick their poison. They can double any receiver, but they can't double everyone. That helps White, who had an NFC-high 100 catches, and the Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez.
"When you have Julio on one side, Roddy on the other, Tony in the middle, and then you add another guy like Harry Douglas who has had a great season as well, somebody is going to have one-on-one matchups," said Ryan, who had a career-best 29 touchdowns in the regular season.
While concerned about Jones, Perry Fewell, the Giants defensive coordinator, said everything starts with slowing Turner, who rushed for 1,340 yards.
"It's well documented that when he goes over 100 yards, they win," Fewell said.
The Falcons do not have to worry about the Giants' running game as much. New York finished last in the league in rushing, averaging less than 90 yards.
That forced Manning and the passing game to step up, and he has had a spectacular season.
Manning threw for 4,933 yards, with Cruz catching 82 passes for a team record 1,536 yards and nine TDs. "We always have that capability - to hit the big play," Manning said. "Now it's just being consistent."
William Moore, the Falcons safety, said it is going to be hard to stop Manning."We're going to have to [force turnovers]," Moore said. "Turnovers are going to be key this weekend."
• Atlanta Falcons at New York Giants
Atlanta, grateful to have barely avoided a game at the potent New Orleans Saints, welcome a game against New York, a team that survived a brutal late-season schedule. Matt Ryan, the Falcons quarterback, in fourth season, is 0-2 in play-offs. Eli Manning, the Giants quarterback, won the Super Bowl in his third post-season. Ryan excelled at no-huddle offence, lifted by Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez catching passes. Manning was superb in fourth quarter with a record 15 touchdown passes, good for five come-from-behind wins.
• Pittsburg Steelers at Denver Broncos
Pittsburgh limp into Denver without Rashard Mendenhall and with Ben Roethlisberger ailing. The pass-happy Steelers have little choice but to throw. Even if visitors struggle to score against Denver’s ferocious pass rush, they will not need many points for win. Pittsburgh’s defence is ranked No 1, and the Broncos have hit a wall with Tim Tebow at quarterback, failing to reach end zone last week. Denver staggered into the play-offs with three losses in a row.