ATLANTA — The Atlanta Falcons wanted to make a statement.
Boy, did they deliver one Sunday to the defending Super Bowl champions.
Coming off an ugly loss and criticized for failing to impress even when they won, the Falcons turned in their most well-rounded performance of the season with the playoffs approaching. Matt Ryan threw three touchdowns passes and the defense handed New York its first regular-season shutout since 1996, routing the Giants 34-0.
“We love the haters, man,” said Falcons cornerback Asante Samuel, who had the first of two interceptions against Eli Manning. “The haters keep us going. So keep your hate coming. We love it. It makes us play with a chip on our shoulder.”
It sure showed.
“I felt like I was seeing the field well,” Ryan said.
The Falcons (12-2), who have already clinched the NFC South, moved a step closer to home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs. One more win would ensure that any postseason contests before the Super Bowl are held at the Georgia Dome.
Manning had his lowest-rated game since 2007 for New York (8-6), which dropped into a first-place tie with Washington in the NFC South. Dallas had a chance to make it a three-way tie later in the day, hosting Pittsburgh.
The Giants also went 0-for-3 on fourth down and missed a short field goal.
“Atlanta was very, very good. We were very, very bad,” New York coach Tom Coughlin said. “There’s no excuse for what happened here.”
Despite their lofty record, Atlanta has received plenty of criticism for struggling to beat inferior opponents. A 30-20 loss to last-place Carolina the previous week only seemed to reinforce the notion that the Falconsare headed for another short stay in the playoffs. They have yet to win a postseason game since Ryan took over as the quarterback in 2008, going 0-3.
But one thing the Falcons never seem to do anymore is lose two straight games. They extended the NFL’s longest active streak since consecutive defeats to 49 games, going back to the 2009 season.
“Our focus was heightened from other weeks,” coach Mike Smith said. “We’ve got a lot of great leaders and mentors in that locker room. They took the message from the meetings and took it out on the field.”
After thoroughly dominating the Giants, the Falcons have surely sent a resounding message to the rest of the league: beware of this team in the playoffs.