ATLANTA -- The afternoon began poorly for Eli Manning, and it rarely got much better.
When the first pass thrown by the Giants' quarterback was picked off by the Falcons, it had an eerily familiar feel.
Asante Samuel, traded to the Falcons in the offseason from Philadelphia, intercepted three Manning passes while playing four seasons for the Eagles, so when he stepped in front of a ball intended for wide receiver Hakeem Nicks, deflected it, bobbled it, and then returned it six yards to the Giants' 16-yard-line, it wasn't anything new.
"He just jumped it. That's what he does, and he's done a number of times," Manning said. "I thought I had room, and threw it and he did a great job of jumping on the ball."
Manning went on to complete 13 of 25 passes for 161 yards and his two interceptions led to 10 Atlanta points in a dreadful 34-0 loss.
His passer rating of 38.9 was a season's worst.
The Falcons didn't waste much time converting the first pick into a 7-0 lead, and soon Manning's second pass was deflected at the line by Atlanta defensive tackle Vance Walker. Wide receiver Victor Cruz caught the ball, but for just a 4-yard gain.
Manning's third pass sailed well over Cruz's head, and before long the Giants trailed 14-0 by the end of the first quarter.
Add the second interception, when Atlanta safety Thomas DeCoud stepped in front of Manning's first pass of the second quarter (also an attempt to Hicks), mix in a few throws that weren't catchable, and the first shutout of Manning's pro career was a downright miserable experience.
"You want to be out there and play well," he said. "We know how important the game was. We wanted to go out and ... score points."
Samuel's track record against Manning has an enormous asterisk.
He dropped a would-be interception late in Super Bowl XLII while playing for the Patriots when New England led 14-10. Manning completed a long pass to David Tyree -- the Helmet Catch -- on the next play to keep alive a drive that wound up not only winning the Super Bowl for the Giants, but ending the Patriots' perfect season.
Sunday, though, Falcons coach Mike Smith credited defensive coordinator Mike Nolan -- who was the Giants' defensive coordinator from 1993-96 under former coach Dan Reeves -- for building a scheme that kept Manning off balance.
"Mike and his staff did an outstanding job," Smith said. "It was a look that Eli Manning probably hadn't seen from us."
Smith would not detail Atlanta's plan. Giants coach Tom Coughlin said, “[the Falcons] were able to do some things up front that allowed their secondary to make plays.”
The Falcons sacked Manning just once, but bothered him enough with the pass rush and apparently confused him frequently with coverages in the secondary.
Samuel got it all started.
"I'm accustomed to playing the Giants ... and that experience helped me make plays," said the quicksilver cornerback. "I guess [the Eagles] got tired of me picking [Manning] off so they sent me somewhere else to make a better team over here. Shout out to coach [Andy] Reid. I love ya, Coach."