ATLANTA — Frauds, pretenders: The Atlanta Falcons have been called both, and worse, this season.
They undoubtedly changed some of those perceptions Sunday, with a convincing beat down of the defending Super Bowl champions that had to impress even their biggest doubters.
Matt Ryan passed for 270 yards and three touchdowns, and the Falcons’ defense dominated from the opening kickoff in a 34-0 rout of the New York Giants at the Georgia Dome.
The win keeps the Falcons (12-2) atop the race for the No. 1 seed out of the NFC and avenges last year’s ugly 24-2 playoff loss to the Giants in New York. A loss by the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night at New England would clinch a first-round bye for the Falcons, who finish at Detroit on Thursday and at home against Tampa Bay.
“They don’t remember what you do in September and October,” said Falcons coach Mike Smith. “It’s all about December and January. We haven’t played our best game and when we watch the game tomorrow, we’ll probably have that same opinion.”
The Giants (8-6) have lost four of six and remain locked in a tight battle for the NFC East with games against Baltimore and Philadelphia remaining. New York was shut out for the first time since a 23-0 playoff loss against Carolina in 2005 and just one week after scoring 52 in a win over New Orleans.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin summed it up by saying, “Atlanta was very, very good; we were very, very bad.”
Coughlin added, “We have two games to play. There is a lot of fire and a lot of character in that locker room. We have to come back from a devastating loss and shake it off somehow, someway.”
Ryan completed his first eight passes to six different receivers and broke his own team records for completions and yards in a season during his best performance of the year. He finished 23-of-28 with two touchdowns to Julio Jones and another to Tony Gonzalez.
Jones finished with six catches for 74 yards and touchdowns of 40 and 3 yards.
The first half was all Atlanta. So was the second.
The Falcons picked off Eli Manning twice in the first half and pressured him relentlessly. Asante Samuel intercepted Manning on the Giants’ first possession, setting up Atlanta on the New York 16. Four plays later, Michael Turner barreled in from a yard out to put the Falcons up 7-0, three minutes into the game.
Thomas DeCoud also got Manning with a diving interception that led to Matt Bryant’s 38-yard field goal and a 17-0 Atlanta lead early in the second quarter.
“We had some opportunities in the first half to get ourselves in the game and make it competitive,” said Coughlin. “We weren’t able to accomplish any of that.”
Manning completed 14-of-26 passes for 161 yards with two interceptions.
The Giants had four drives inside Falcons’ territory, but came up with no points. Lawrence Tynes missed a field goal, and the Giants failed to convert on three fourth-down attempts.
“Those three fourth-down stops are like turnovers,” Smith said. “We know that when you make them as a football team it can change the momentum. It multiplies when you stop them on defense.”
Notes: A moment of silence was observed to pay respects for those impacted in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, Conn., Friday. … Giants receiver Victor Cruz wore the name of one of the victims, 6-year-old Jack Pinto, on his gloves and cleats. The entire team wore a “SHES” decal on their helmets for Sandy Hook Elementary School. … Giants leading rusher Ahmad Bradshaw (left knee) missed his first game of the season. … Falcons safety William Moore missed his second straight game with injured ribs. Chris Hope started in Moore’s place, but was hurt in the second quarter and had to leave the game but did return. … Michael Turner passed William Andrews and moved into second place on the Falcons’ all-time rushing leader list.
Packers 21, Bears 13: James Jones recorded his first career three-touchdown game as visiting Green Bay clinched its second consecutive NFC North title.
Aaron Rodgers went 23-for-36 for 291 yards and Randall Cobb reeled in six catches for 115 yards for the Packers (10-4), who have won eight of nine overall and six consecutive games against Chicago.
Jay Cutler found Brandon Marshall for his 10th touchdown but did little else from there. Cutler finished with 135 yards for the Bears (8-6), who are clinging to the final playoff spot despite having dropped three straight games and five of their last six.
After grabbing a 29-yard scoring strike along the sideline, Jones reeled in an 8-yard score just 28 seconds before halftime. Jones continued his brilliant day near the eight-minute mark of the third quarter, corralling a 6-yard strike from Rodgers just inside the pylon.
Green Bay tried some special-teams trickery by attempting a cross-field lateral, resulting in Chicago receiving the ball on the Packers’ 17-yard line. Chicago didn’t advance the ball a yard and settled for a field goal to trim the deficit to 21-13.
Broncos 34, Ravens 17: Knowshon Moreno rushed for 118 yards and a touchdown and Peyton Manning added 204 passing yards and a score as visiting Denver trounced stumbling Baltimore.
Eric Decker caught eight passes for 133 yards and a TD and Chris Harris ran an interception back 98 yards for a score for the Broncos (11-3), who won their ninth straight game and moved a half-game in front of the New England Patriots for a first-round bye in the playoffs. The Patriots, who play later Sunday, hold the tiebreaker between the teams.
Joe Flacco went 20-of-40 for 254 yards, two touchdowns and interception while Ray Rice was held to 38 rushing yards for the Ravens (9-5), who dropped their third straight and failed to clinch the AFC North.
The turning point came late in the second quarter, when Baltimore was driving for a score that would have cut it to 10-7 before the half. But Harris jumped in front of wide receiver Anquan Boldin at the 2-yard line and beat Flacco down the sideline for a touchdown and a 17-0 Denver lead 15 seconds before the half.
The Ravens got on the board with a field goal out of the break but the Broncos responded immediately, when Manning found Decker for a 51-yard touchdown. Denver forced a three-and-out on the ensuing possession and needed only four plays to turn it into a 31-3 edge, with Moreno busting in for a 6-yard score.
Vikings 36, Rams 22: Adrian Peterson ran for 212 yards and a touchdown — his eighth consecutive 100-yard game — and visiting Minnesota snapped St. Louis’ three-game winning streak.
Peterson tied his season high with an 82-yard scoring run to ignite a run of 23 consecutive points in the second quarter as the Vikings (8-6) halted a four-game road losing streak and pulled into a tie with Chicago for second place in the NFC North.
Everson Griffen returned an interception 29 yards for a touchdown and rookie Blair Walsh kicked five field goals, including three of at least 50 yards, as Minnesota all but snuffed out the playoff hopes of the Rams (6-7-1).
Sam Bradford threw for 377 yards and three touchdowns for St. Louis, but his fumble of a botched snap and interception by Griffen led to 17 points in a span of 3:56 for the Vikings en route to a 30-7 halftime lead.
Minnesota quarterback Christian Ponder threw for only 131 yards and ran for a 5-yard score but again left the heavy lifting to Peterson, who has amassed a career-high 1,812 yards to put him within 294 yards of tying Eric Dickerson’s single-season NFL record. He also became the second NFL player to have a pair of 200-yard games in the same month since Tiki Barber with the New York Giants in December 2005.
Seahawks 50, Bills 17: Rookie Russell Wilson ran for three touchdowns and threw for 205 yards and another score as Seattle extended its winning streak to three by steamrolling the host Bills in Toronto.
Wilson rushed for 92 yards on nine carries and had scoring runs of 14, 25 and 13 yards in the first half as the Seahawks (9-5) maintained a one-game lead for the fifth seed in the NFC and became the first team to score 50 points in consecutive regular-season games in 62 years.
Marshawn Lynch went over 100 yards for the eighth time this season, rushing for 113 yards and a TD against his former teammates, and Earl Thomas returned an interception 57 yards for a score to move Seattle closer to NFC West leader San Francisco (9-3-1). The 49ers play at New England on Sunday night.
C.J. Spiller rushed for 103 yards on 17 carries for the Bills (5-9), who fell to 1-4 at Rogers Centre. Buffalo appeared to gather momentum in the final 70 seconds of the first half on Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 20-yard scoring pass to Stevie Johnson and Rian Lindell’s 41-yard field goal to pull within 31-17.
It ended abruptly early in the third quarter courtesy of a string of miscues by Fitzpatrick. He threw an interception and a fumble that led to 10 quick points before Thomas’ interception return capped a 16-point spurt in 6:05 and ballooned the lead to 47-17 with 6:13 left in the quarter.