ATLANTA -- This is what a 12-2 team is supposed to look like.
It goes out and dominates every facet of the game against the defending Super Bowl champions. It plays like a machine and erases the ghosts of last season’s playoffs and last week’s ugly loss to Carolina Panthers.
“I think this is the best game we’ve put together all season,’’ cornerback Asante Samuel said.
Samuel generally isn’t prone to understatements, but he might have been selling the Falcons short on this one. If the Falcons didn’t play a perfect game Sunday, they at least bordered on it.
They recorded the first regular-season shutout ever in a game that Eli Manning started. They recorded the first regular-season shutout against the Giants since December 1996.
Even the critics, including media members and opposing players, who have been quick to point out the Falcons often have been just getting by against the league’s easiest schedule, have to be impressed by this one. At least for the moment, you can make a case the Falcons are as good as their record.
But don’t let Samuel catch you giving the Falcons their due.
“We love the haters,’’ Samuel said. “The haters keep us going. Keep up the hate.’’
But the season-long theme about a lack of respect wasn’t the lone motivating factor. Last week’s 30-20 loss to Carolina might have played just as big a role.
“Embarrassment,’’ veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez said when asked why the Falcons’ focus was so much better this week. “It was better than it’s been because it had to be.’’
Said head coach Mike Smith, “Our focus this week was heightened, I will say that.’’
To a man, the Falcons talked about how well they practiced and prepared for the Giants, who beat them, 24-2, in last season’s playoffs.
“This week, what we figured out was if you put in the work, you’re going to get the result you want,’’ linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “We know now we need to play playoff ball the rest of the way.’’
For perhaps the first time all season, the Falcons were at the absolute top of their game in every area.
The special teams kept Giants return man David Wilson from doing any damage. The offense had balance and rhythm throughout the game. The maligned running game produced 129 yards. Quarterback Matt Ryan was almost perfect and might have edged his way back into the Most Valuable Player conversation. He completed 23 of 38 passes for 270 yards and three touchdowns. Julio Jones caught two touchdown passes and moved past the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the season. The offensive line protected Ryan (one sack) very well against a Giants front four that Smith called the best in the NFL.
But, on a day where every unit shined, the defense might have been the brightest spot.
The Falcons recorded their first shutout since the 2009 season and their first at home since 2002, and they did it against a quarterback that has won two Super Bowls. They set the tone early, as Samuel intercepted Manning on the second play of the game to set up a quick Atlanta touchdown.
Safety Thomas DeCoud also intercepted Manning early in the second quarter to set up a field goal that put the Falcons ahead 17-0. But the interceptions weren’t even the biggest story of the day for the Atlanta defense.
Three times -- twice in the second quarter and once in the third quarter -- the Giants went for it on fourth down instead of settling for a field goal.
“I thought that was a little disrespectful, like, 'We’re better than you,'’’ Weatherspoon said. “But we got it done between the lines.’’
All three times, the Falcons stopped the Giants.
“Gigantic,’’ Smith said. “Absolutely gigantic. Those three fourth-down stops were like turnovers.’’
Said Weatherspoon, “They were turnovers. That’s demoralizing for a team.’’
The loss certainly didn’t help the Giants in their quest to win the NFC East and earn a playoff berth. But the victory might have done wonders for the Falcons' morale.
It also might have opened some eyes that the Falcons truly are a good team.
“I understand why the media doesn’t have the stomach to jump on the bandwagon,’’ Gonzalez said. “They are going to say what they want to say until we go out and win a playoff game. That’s just the reality.’’
But maybe how other people perceive the Falcons shouldn’t really matter. Maybe all that matters is how the Falcons perceive themselves and how they perform when it matters most.
“They don’t remember what you do in September and October,’’ Smith said. “It’s all about December and January. We’ve been saying we haven’t played our best. We haven’t played our best game, and when we watch the [replay] tomorrow, we’ll probably have that same opinion.’’
If Smith and the Falcons can look at the film of this one and find any flaws, that’s a good thing. It would mean that, even after a fantastic performance, there still is room for improvement.
“It was a statement game for this week,’’ Weatherspoon said. “But there’s a lot more to be done.’’
If the Falcons are going to win in the postseason for the first time in the Smith-Ryan era, they’ll need to play like they did against the Giants. If they do that, anything is possible.
“It’s time,’’ Gonzalez said. “It’s that time of year where you have start jelling as a football team. “We’re a good team. We have a lot of talent, but it hasn’t been clicking all the time and I don’t know why. But this shows that, when we focus, we’re very tough to beat.’’