By MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM
FLOWERY BRANCH — All of a sudden payback is far down the list of motives for the Falcons when they play the Giants on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
After NFC also-ran Carolina smacked them last Sunday, the Falcons are just trying to regroup. Now their 24-2 playoff defeat at New York in January seems almost incidental even though the residual negatives from that game have loomed over Atlanta’s strong regular season.
“I don’t have this, like, deep desire to get them back,” Falcons tackle Tyson Clabo said. “I just want to play well and defend the Dome and get a win.”
Revenge aside, there are lots of reasons for the Falcons (11-2) to be keen on defeating the Giants (8-5). It starts with the chance they could end up facing New York again in the playoffs.
Also, though the Falcons have already won the NFC South title, they have yet to earn a bye or a playoff home game. They can still secure the NFC’s top playoff seed and thus the chance to reach the Super Bowl with two home playoff victories.
Unless they collapse over the final three games, the Falcons should at least earn a bye and one home playoff game. Better to put those issues to rest as soon as possible rather than rely on defeats by other teams.
Plus, the Falcons want to surge into the postseason with a strong finish rather than slip in with so many question marks.
“We said last week leading into it that was our goal to come out in the fourth quarter [of the season] and play our best football of the year,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “Obviously, through the first game of the fourth quarter we did not do that.”
The past two Super Bowl champions got on a roll in December and carried it into January.
In 2010, the Packers had to win their last two regular-season games to secure the final NFC Wild Card berth. They won three road games in the NFC playoffs, including a second-round victory at Atlanta, before defeating the Steelers in the Super Bowl.
Similarly, the Giants were in danger of missing the playoffs after losing five of six games in 2011. They made the playoffs by winning their final two regular-season games, then started their championship run with a 24-2 victory over the Falcons.
The postseason flops against Green Bay and New York are major reasons why so many remained skeptical of the Falcons even after they started 8-0. The listless performance at Carolina amplified those doubts.
Defeating the Giants could start a surge to the playoffs for the Falcons. At the very least an Atlanta victory could provide evidence that its poor effort in the 30-20 loss at Carolina was an aberration rather than a sign of real trouble.
“We have a standard here and obviously [last Sunday] did not live up to that standard,” Clabo said. “We are disappointed we performed the way we did. On the flip side of that, we are excited we have the world champs coming in and we can respond and put on a performance that lives up to that standard that we’ve set for ourselves.”
The Giants will have plenty of motivation. They haven’t yet earned a playoff spot and lead the Redskins and Cowboys by just one game in the NFC East.
The Giants thrashed the Saints 52-27 last Sunday. They still have most of the key players from their championship team.
“They are obviously a very good team,” Falcons guard Justin Blalock said. “They don’t give out Super Bowl trophies for nothing. They always seem to be playing good ball when the winter comes around. We know that we’ve got a tough one ahead of us and we’re going to prepare accordingly.”
Atlanta didn’t appear ready for Carolina, the last-place team in the NFC South.
The Panthers made no secret that they were fired up for the game. They trash-talked the Falcons through the media in the days before the game and kept talking as they beat them on the field. The Falcons had no response.
Perhaps that humbling defeat and a visit from the Giants will get Atlanta’s attention.
“It’s not going to take much for us to get up for this game,” Falcons defensive end John Abraham said.
Panthers hold on to defeat Falcons 30-20
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