Steam Rolling Along

Jeff Garcia went to three Pro Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers, guiding them to back-to-back playoff appearances in 2002 and 2003. The 49ers haven't been back to the postseason since, but Garcia will be there with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season.

Garcia, who has led the Buccaneers to an NFC South title, will face the 49ers for the first time when the teams meet on Sunday.

Oddsmakers from Bodog have made Tampa Bay -6 point spread favorites (View NFL Football odds) for Sunday’s game, the over/under has been set at 36.5 total points (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 78% of bets for this game have been placed on Tampa Bay -6 (View NFL Football bet percentages).

Garcia made 74 starts - including three in the playoffs - with San Francisco from 1999-2003, making the Pro Bowl three times in that span. His steady play has helped Tampa Bay (9-5) return to the playoffs after finishing 4-12 last season. The Bucs are the third franchise he has guided to the playoffs after helping Philadelphia win the NFC East a season ago.

Tampa Bay is one of seven teams without a Pro Bowl player, even after securing its second NFC South title in three years with a 37-3 win over Atlanta last Sunday.

Garcia, 37, passed for 13,704 yards and 113 touchdowns with the 49ers. This season, he has completed a career-high 64.2 percent of his passes for 2,244 yards and 12 TDS, while being picked off only four times.

Garcia and the Bucs are tied with Seattle for the third-best record in the NFC, but don't hold the tie-breaker after losing to the Seahawks 23-3 on Sept. 30.

With playoff position yet to be settled, Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden won't be resting any key players, including Garcia.

"We want to win. To do that you got to play your best players," Gruden said.

"There might be some opportunity to look at some players, although we've looked at just about every guy on our roster and then some. So we're going to use everybody on our football team. We're not going to change much in the next two weeks."

Garcia's veteran presence makes a matchup with the San Francisco (4-10) a good opportunity for Tampa Bay to at least keep pace with the Seahawks this week. The 49ers will have rookie linebacker Patrick Willis and punter Andy Lee at the Pro Bowl, but this is their fifth straight losing season.

This is also the fifth straight season that the NFC South champions finished last the previous year. Tampa Bay doesn't have many big-name players, but it has been sparked by young players and some key free-agent pickups.

Against Atlanta, former practice squad receiver Micheal Spurlock became the first Buccaneer to return a kickoff for a touchdown, going 90 yards in the first quarter. It took 32 seasons and 1,865 tries, but the Bucs finally ended one of the most dubious streaks in NFL history.

Along with Spurlock, the offensive line - featuring four starters in their first or second seasons - has gotten praise from Gruden. The unit has given Garcia time to throw and Earnest Graham lanes to run through. Graham has filled in nicely for the injured Carnell "Cadillac" Williams and Michael Pittman.

"You can't say enough about what he's done," Gruden said of Graham, who has rushed for 877 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Graham has rushed for a TD in a franchise record six straight games. He will be facing a 49ers team that ranks 23rd in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 119.0 yards per game.

San Francisco, though, only gave up 61 yards on the ground in a 20-13 win over Cincinnati last Saturday. The 49ers' defense had a strong game against a talented Bengals' offense after giving up 27 points or more in each of its previous three games.

A bright spot on defense all season for San Francisco has been Willis - the 11th overall pick in the 2007 draft out of Mississippi - who leads the NFL with 142 tackles, but remained humble even after finding out he was going to the Pro Bowl.

"The whole time I just kept an open mind, because I know that I'm a rookie," Willis said. "I know sometimes, being the younger guy, they always say 'Well, he has a while, so maybe we'll just wait 'til next year and see what he does next year.' So I just kept an open mind, and if I didn't make it, I'd just continue to work and work even harder."

On offense, the 49ers got a spark from quarterback Shaun Hill against Cincinnati. Hill - a former third-stringer - got his first NFL start and passed for 197 yards while accounting for two touchdowns.

Hill's steady play was a nice change after a disappointing season that featured a rift between coach Mike Nolan and Alex Smith concerning the severity of the quarterback's shoulder injury.

"I'm very pleased to see the way he's played," Nolan said about Hill. "He will make us a better football team one way or the other, whatever his role."

On special teams, meanwhile, San Francisco has gotten perhaps the best season by a punter in NFL history.

Lee, who will make his first Pro Bowl appearance, has a 48.3-yard average and a 42.4-yard net average. No punter or team has had a net average of 40 yards or more since 1976, when the NFL first kept track of the statistic.

This will be the first meeting between San Francisco and Tampa Bay since Oct. 30, 2005, when the 49ers won 15-10 at home.

By: Staff Writers - Email Us

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