From Comcast SportsNetATLANTA (AP) -- 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.Julio Jones caught a couple of scoring throws from Ryan, who broke his own franchise records for completions and passing yards in a season. Matty Ice finished 23 of 28 for 270 yards."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 and Dallas in the NFC East. The Redskins and the Cowboys both won Sunday.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 Falcons are 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."Last week everybody was talking smack about us," defensive end John Abraham said. "We just continue what we're doing."For the Giants, it was a miserable performance when they controlled their own destiny, at a time of year when they normally play some of their best football.Manning threw his first pick on the second play of scrimmage, setting up a quick Atlanta touchdown. Coughlin made a curious call late in the first half, passing up another short field goal attempt when his team was almost 2 yards shy of the marker. Samuel batted down a short pass intended for Victor Cruz, sending Atlanta to the locker room with a commanding 17-0 lead and all the momentum."I was thinking we needed to engender a lift for our sideline," Coughlin said. "That did not work out either."Nothing did.The tone was set right away.When Manning attempted to hit Hakeem Nicks on a short pass to the right, Samuel stepped in to make the interception and return it to the Giants 16. From there, Michael Turner ran it four straight times, the last of those a 1-yard plunge that gave Atlanta a 7-0 lead less than 3 minutes into the game.It was all Falcons after Lawrence Tynes missed a chip shot kick from 30 yards, ruining an impressive second possession by the Giants. Atlanta took it 80 yards from there, with Ryan going to Harry Douglas on a 37-yard gain for the biggest play. Then, on third-and-11 from the 12, Ryan went to his favorite target, Tony Gonzalez, in the end zone. The 16-year veteran leaped over safety Will Hill to haul in the high throw -- and hopped up quickly for his customary dunk over the goalposts.Manning finished 13 of 25 for 161 yards, leaving him with a dismal 38.9 rating -- his worst since a Dec. 23, 2007, win at Buffalo."We have two games left and we have to win those two games," Manning said. "What else happens after that, we don't know and can't control."Early in the second half, the Falcons blew it open on Ryan's 40-yard touchdown pass to Jones down the left sideline. Finally, after a drive that used up more than 9 minutes in the fourth quarter, Ryan went to Jones for a 3-yard TD.The Giants turned it over one more time in the closing minutes, finishing off their first shutout in the regular season since a 24-0 defeat at Philadelphia on Dec. 1, 1996. The performance came just a week after they put up 52 points on the New Orleans Saints.There was a moment of silence before the game honoring the Connecticut shooting victims, and New York took the extra step of wearing "SHES" decals on its blue helmets in honor of Sandy Hook Elementary School. Even more touchingly, Cruz dedicated the game to 6-year-old victim Jack Pinto, who was reported to be a big Giants fan."It was very emotional, obviously, during the game," said Cruz, who caught only three passes for 15 yards. "With a family facing that much tragedy, you want to be someone that inspires them, someone that can put a smile on their face at a time where it's tough to do that."NOTES:More recently, the Giants were shut out in the playoffs after the 2005 season, losing at Carolina 23-0. ... Ryan has thrown for 4,202 yards and 27 touchdowns this season. ... There was one bright spot for Manning: He set a franchise record for career completions with 2,585, moving past the mark held by Phil Simms (2,576).
CSNChicago.com’s Dan Hayes and JJ Stankevitz saw plenty of the Cleveland Indians while covering the White Sox in 2016, and set their sights on what kind of a challenge the Tribe will provide the Cubs in the World Series.
The American League’s second-best offense has slowed down considerably in the postseason as its .635 OPS ranks seventh among 10 playoff teams in 2016. But the Indians have received enough clutch hitting from part-timer Coco Crisp and their star in the making, shortstop Francisco Lindor, to make the most of their stellar pitching in the playoffs.
In the regular season, the Indians finished second in the American League in runs scored (777) in part because of an aggressive approach on the base paths and even though the team’s best player, Michael Brantley, was limited to 43 plate appearances because of injury. The Indians ranked second in the majors in extra bases taken with 186, two ahead of the Cubs, according to baseball-reference.com. The team also finished second in the majors with an extra bases taken percentage of 45 and led the AL with 134 stolen bases in 165 tries (81 percent).
The offense is centered around designated hitter Carlos Santana, who blasted a career best 34 home runs and posted an .865 OPS. First baseman Mike Napoli and second baseman Jason Kipnis also established career highs in homers with 34 and 23, respectively. Kipnis finished with 68 extra-base hits, including 41 doubles.
Third baseman Jose Ramirez picked up much of the slack for a team that also was without projected outfielder Abraham Almonte for half the season because of a suspension for PEDs. Ramirez had 46 doubles among his 60 extra-base hits and produced an .825 OPS in an outstanding all-around campaign that could garner him a few MVP votes. Rookie Tyler Naquin also filled a big void in the outfield with 14 homers and 43 RBIs in 365 plate appearances.
So far, Indians manager Terry Francona has divided up the plate appearances among his outfielders in October. Only right fielder Lonnie Chisenhall has received consistent playing time as the Indians have platooned Crisp, Naquin, Rajai Davis, who stole 43 bases this season, and Brandon Guyer.
-- Dan Hayes
Andrew Miller may be having the best postseason a relief pitcher has ever had. The big-ticket trade deadline acquisition threw 11 2/3 innings in the ALDS against the Boston Red Sox and ALCS against the Toronto Blue Jays, striking out 21 while allowing only five singles and two walks (that’s good for a laughable .132/.171/.184 opponent slash line). Manager Terry Francona hasn’t been shy about using Miller early in games, too — he inserted the 6-foot-7 lefty in the fifth inning of Cleveland’s ALDS Game 1 win over the Red Sox, and half of his six playoff appearances this year began in the sixth inning or earlier. Miller’s ability to throw multiple innings will put pressure on the Cubs to score early and often against the Indians’ rotation.
Francona’s willingness to use Miller early has been critical toward helping maximize the success of a starting rotation without two of its three best arms in the postseason. Carlos Carrasco (fractured gone in right hand) won’t pitch in the World Series, though Francona hinted that fellow right-handed All-Star Danny Salazar (strained flexor muscle in right forearm) could return to start in the World Series. Right-hander Trevor Bauer, who sliced his right pinky open while repairing his drone and only managed to record two outs before his finger gushed blood in Game 3 of the ALCS, will start Game 2 or 3.
With or without Salazar and/or Bauer, though, Cleveland’s rotation has been effective. Corey Kluber is the unquestioned ace of the staff and allowed only two runs over 18 1/3 innings in three postseason starts, which stands as a continuation of his strong regular season numbers (18-9, 215 IP, 3.14 ERA, 3.26 FIP). Josh Tomlin has had a short rope, only throwing 10 2/3 innings in his two starts, but allowed three runs in that span with 10 strikeouts and three walks. Rookie left-hander Ryan Merrett threw 4 2/3 shutout innings in a clinching Game 5 win over the Blue Jays last week, too, showing no signs of “shaking in his boots” in his first postseason start.
The rest of Cleveland’s bullpen -- which tied for the second-best ERA in the American League (3.45) in the regular season -- has found success in addition to Miller in the playoffs. Hard-throwing closer Cody Allen has looked unflappable in five save opportunities, allowing five hits and three walks with 12 strikeouts. Right-handers Dan Otero (3.1 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 1 K) and Bryan Shaw (5.2 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 5 K, 1 HR) have been go-to options if Miller can’t bridge the gap between the starting pitcher and Allen, too.
It doesn’t come as a surprise that Cleveland has found pitching success in the playoffs, even with so many injuries, given their 3.86 staff ERA ranked 7th in baseball.
-- JJ Stankevitz
Nobody has been as outstanding of a defensive team as the Cubs in 2016. But, the Indians are still near the top of the second tier team and have proven a remarkably improved squad over the past two seasons. Much of their improvement stems from the stellar play provided by Lindor, who ranked second in the majors in Ultimate Zone Rating (20.8) among shortstops and fourth in Defensive Runs Saved with 17, according to fangraphs.com. Combined with Kipnis, who ranked sixth in UZR (7.3) among second baseman, the Indians have a strong double play combo. Ramirez also proved to be a steady defender at third base after taking over as the full-timer following the release of Juan Uribe.
Though the club has missed the presence of starting catcher Yan Gomes, it has handled his absence extremely well. Not only does replacement Roberto Perez rate among the game’s best pitch framers, he also threw out 13 of 26 runners who attempted to steal a base with him behind the dish.
-- Dan Hayes
Francona won two World Series trophies with the Boston Red Sox, including the one in 2004 that ended that franchise’s 87-year title drought. He’s led Cleveland to two postseason berths since taking over in 2013, and the Tribe haven’t had a losing record in his four years at the helm.
The 57-year-old has been lauded for his aggressive use of Miller in the playoffs, deploying the lights-out lefty as a study bridge between a starting rotation beset by injuries and dominant closer Allen.
First baseman/catcher/designated hitter Santana is hardly a prototypical leadoff man, but he’s hit first in six of Cleveland’s eight games in the postseason after leading off 85 games in the regular season. And that’s the batting order position he’s been most effective from --- In the regular season, Santana hit .260/.385/.502 with more walks (67) than strikeouts (60) as a leadoff man. Francona’s willingness to eschew stolen bases and speed on the base paths has put early pressure on starting pitchers by having Santana on base so frequently.
Said Cubs starter Jon Lester, who pitched for Francona in the Red Sox 2007 championship run: “I know that manager on their side’s going to be prepared, I know their coaching staff’s going to be ready.”
-- JJ Stankevitz
As Cubs players and generations of fans celebrated Christmas in October, Jon Lester had to be The Grinch for a moment. Sure, the Cubs would party from Saturday night into Sunday morning, probably get “a little bit” drunk and enjoy the franchise’s first National League pennant in 71 years. But the reality of the Cleveland Indians would set in once the Cubs got rid of this hangover.
“We ain’t done anything yet,” Lester said during the Wrigley Field celebration after the Cubs eliminated the Los Angeles Dodgers. “Nobody likes second place.”
There are enough Boston Red Sox connections in this World Series that Lester already knows what to expect, starting with Indians manager Terry Francona, who became a father figure as he dealt with a cancer scare as a rookie.
There are ex-teammates from those championship teams in 2007 (Coco Crisp) and 2013 (Mike Napoli, Andrew Miller) at Fenway Park. There is the accumulated experience from throwing 119 postseason innings (2.50 ERA) and becoming one of the best big-game pitchers of his generation.
“I don’t want to sound like a smart-ass, but we got a long ways to go,” Lester said. “I know that manager on their side’s going to be prepared. I know their coaching staff’s going to be ready. I know their players are going to be ready, just based on one player alone, and that’s Mike Napoli. I know what he brings to the table. He helped transform our 2013 team.
“Come Tuesday, we got to put the gloves back on. We got to get ready to fight and grind and do what we’ve done well all year. We got four more games to win.”
After limiting the Dodgers to two runs in 13 innings, and being named the NL Championship Series’ co-MVP along with Javier Baez, Lester should be a worthy Game 1 starter opposite Corey Kluber, the 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner.
This is why Lester took a leap of faith with Cubs bosses/ex-Red Sox executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer and chairman Tom Ricketts’ family and what had been a last-place team in 2014.
Two seasons into the $155 million contract that signaled the Cubs would be serious about contending – and not just in the Baseball America/Baseball Prospectus prospect rankings – the franchise has won 200 games and four playoff rounds and remained in position to dominate for years to come.
“Theo and Jed and the front office and Tom and all these guys had a belief,” Lester said. “I believed in that belief. The talent here speaks for itself. I didn’t do anything – I came here because I wanted to win in Chicago. I’m just happy to be here and be a part of this and get to this point.
“(But) we’re four hard wins away from doing what we set out to do in spring training.”
As bright as the future looks on the North Side, Lester will be 33 next season and his left arm has already accounted for more than 2,000 innings during his decorated career. John Lackey turned 38 on Sunday. Jake Arrieta only has one more season before becoming a free agent.
The Cubs built their franchise around young hitters, with the idea that they can figure out the pitching later with free agents, change-of-scenery trades and bounce-back guys. Easier said than done. They have a true No. 1 starter now in Lester, who as a free agent watched a recruiting video that imagined what it would be like when the Cubs win the World Series.
“This isn’t it,” Lester said. “It’s been a tough playoffs for us to this point and it’s only going to get tougher. We’re going to enjoy it. We’re going to show up Tuesday in Cleveland ready to play. We’ll see what happens.”