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Falcons look to avoid stumble against Giants

By Simon Evans

(Reuters) - The Atlanta Falcons look to overcome their recent playoff pain when they face a New York Giants team on Sunday that has fought its way into the National Football League post-season with a late rally.

The Falcons have twice made the playoffs under head coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan but were blasted 48-21 by the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round last year and in 2008 lost to the Arizona Cardinals in the wildcard round.

Atlanta does not want to dwell on those performances, though.

"All the stuff that happened in the past doesn't really make a difference," Ryan told reporters. "It comes down to preparing this week and doing whatever we can to keep advancing throughout the playoffs."

Certainly, Atlanta (10-6) looks to have quality in all the right areas. Running back Michael Turner (1,340 yards rushing), receivers Roddy White (1,296 yards receiving) and Julio Jones (959 yards) and Ryan (4,177 yards passing) make up a nicely balanced offense.

But Ryan will be up against a Giants pass rush that has produced 48 sacks this year and has been particularly effective in the final stages of the regular season.

The Giants (9-7) booked their place in the wildcard round with an emphatic win over divisional rivals the Dallas Cowboys in what was a winner-takes-all encounter where Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo found himself suffocated by New York's pass rush.

Tom Coughlin's team were 3-1 in the final four weeks of the regular season with a pair of wins over Dallas and a victory over the New York Jets, after a mid-season wobble had threatened their playoff hopes.

New York quarterback Eli Manning has been in inspired form, passing for a career best 4,933 yards and has been particularly effective late in games when he has five times led them to wins when they have trailed in the fourth quarter.

"I think it's just being competitive, wanting to win," said Manning, who had 15 fourth quarter touchdown passes this season.

"It's also the teammates understanding the circumstances, being smart, understand, 'Hey, this is crunch time. We need plays. We need to play our best football at this point.' So I think it's the level of play of the whole offensive unit (that) all of a sudden steps up in crunch time."

Manning's ability, particularly at crunch time, was evident when the Giants won the Super Bowl for the 2007 season with his last gasp touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress, but what is new this season is the emergence of an exciting wide receiver.

Victor Cruz, undrafted in 2010, was picked up by the Giants but did not make a single catch in his brief involvement last year.

This season, he has turned into a revelation with 1,536 yards receiving, including a 99-yard touchdown catch against the Jets proved crucial in the Giants' run to the playoffs.

Last week he made a 74-yard touchdown catch to get New York ahead against Dallas and celebrated with his now trademark salsa dance.

Manning believes his receiver has that little something special that can make the difference in a big game.

"He's got a knack for making a little tick or a play that is designed to get four, five or six yards and turn it into 60 and 70 yard plays," Manning said "He's not trying to do that every time. It's just the way he plays, it turns out that way.".

(Editing by Gene Cherry)

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