Here are a look at three keys to Sunday's game between the New York Giants (8-5) and the Atlanta Falcons (11-2).
Giants' backs vs. Falcons' blitzers
OK, let's assume that Ahmad Bradshaw will not play. If I had to guess right now I think the Giants list him as 'doubtful,' and that Bradshaw (knee/foot) misses Sunday's game.
That means rookie David Wilson and his work-in-progress blocking skills will carry the bulk of the running load. I would expect increased snaps for Kregg Lumpkin, particularly on third down, and I would also expect to see fullback Henry Hynoski in more one-back sets -- especially in passing situations.
Bradshaw is one of the best pass-blocking backs in football -- if not the absolute best. The Falcons, with linebackers Sean Witherspoon and Stephen Nicholas, and perhaps with occasional corner or safety blitzes, will probably test the remaining backs to see if they can take advantage of Bradshaw's absence. Will Wilson and Co. know there assignments, and will they be able to carry them out?
Eli Manning vs. Atlanta's secondary
It seems like Atlanta cornerback Asante Samuel has made a living baiting Manning interceptions. In eight career games against the Giants Samuel has picked off Manning three times. Falcons' free safety Thomas Decoud has five interceptions, and Atlanta also has veteran cornerback Dunta Robinson. The Giants should be able to make some plays against a Falcons' secondary ranked 16th in the league (234.9 yards per game) against the pass. Provided, that is, Manning throws the ball to the correct team.
The play of cornerbacks Corey Webster and Jayron Hosley
Prince Amukamara appears unlikely to play Sunday. That means Hosley, a rookie who has had his ups and downs this season, will start. He had better be able to do the job. The only other cornerback on the roster is veteran Justin Tryon, and we know things haven't gone well this season when Tryon has had to play. As for Webster the Giants will settle for solid play and not surrendering any of the huge chunks of yardage he has had a propensity for giving up this season.
Which team can run the ball?
Neither team has been great running the ball this season. The Falcons are a lowly 28th in the league, averaging 86.9 yards per game rushing. The Giants are 15th at 116.4 yards per game. Both teams are prolific in the air and have lots of weapons to throw to -- even if Roddy White (knee) doesn't play for Atlanta. The team that gets some plays from its running game is going to have a huge advantage.
This is an interesting game. Statistically these two teams are similar. The 11-2 Falcons have already clinched the NFC South and should end up with home-field advantage in the playoffs, while the Giants lead the NFC East by a game but are fighting for their playoff lives.
One thing in the Giants' favor, though, is that Atlanta has beaten up on one of the league's softest schedules while the Giants have played one of the most difficult. If the Giants follow last season's script they could put together a big performance on Sunday. If they stumble, the playoffs might just end up out of reach.