All Eyes on Eli

The New York Giants haven't won a playoff game since 2001. Jeff Garcia has played a big part in that - and gets yet another chance to extend that drought Sunday.

Garcia leads the fourth-seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7) against the fifth-seeded Giants (10-6) in a wild-card matchup at Raymond James Stadium.

Oddsmakers from Bodog have made Tampa Bay -3 point spread favorites (View NFL Football odds) for Sunday’s game, the over/under has been set at 40 total points (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 68% of bets for this game have been placed on New York Giants +3 (View NFL Football bet percentages).

Garcia will make his third playoff start against the Giants in as many uniforms, and the sight of the veteran quarterback likely won't be pleasing to New York. Garcia has engineered two playoff victories over the Giants in the past six seasons, most recently last year.

Filling in for an injured Donovan McNabb, Garcia completed 17 of 31 passes for 153 yards and a touchdown to help Philadelphia defeat New York 23-20 in a wild-card game last Jan. 7. That performance, however, is hardly his most memorable one against the Giants in the postseason.

On Jan. 5, 2003, Garcia helped lead the second-biggest playoff comeback in league history, throwing for 331 yards and three touchdowns, and rushing seven times for 60 yards and a TD to help San Francisco rally from a 38-14 deficit and defeat New York 39-38.

``I don't think that I really look at those games as feeling like I - or believing that I - have an edge up on the Giants,'' Garcia said. ``It is not like that at all. I feel like what we did those days we were able to make enough plays to win the football game, but it is going to be a battle.''

Now the Giants again face the 37-year-old Garcia, who won the Bucs starting job this season after being signed away from the Eagles as a free agent in March. He threw for 2,440 yards, 13 touchdowns and just four interceptions to help Tampa Bay return to the top of the NFC South for the first time since 2002 - the season the team won its only Super Bowl.

Garcia posted a 94.6 quarterback rating, seventh in the league, as the Bucs returned to the playoffs after a year off. Tampa Bay was 4-12 in 2006.

"He certainly has done an outstanding job for them. He is the guy that you have to try to do something about," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said Wednesday. "You have to get pressure on him; you have to contain him; you have to get up in his face. You have to do all of those kinds of things. And of course they are always trying to create opportunities for him to be able to be in a position that he can take full advantage of.

"So we definitely know of the strengths of Jeff Garcia, how well he is playing. And we will spend a week trying to do something about it."

Coughlin will be counting on his team's formidable pass rush to keep Garcia in check. New York's 53 sacks topped the league, and led by defensive ends Osi Umenyiora (13), Justin Tuck (10) and Michael Strahan (nine), the Giants will look to generate heavy pressure on Garcia, whose short drops and quick release have given New York problems in the past.

"It's not just the four guys up front; it's the perimeter blitz package," Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said. "They're a great overload blitzing team; you're going to see their cornerbacks have sacks, their linebacking corps has sacks, sacks are coming from all over the place. It's a credit to this scheme and to their personnel, they do an excellent job."

Along with New York's pass rush, Gruden may have to be concerned about rust. Tampa Bay clinched its division with two weeks remaining, then rested most of its starters over the past two games - including Garcia, who didn't play in last week's 31-23 loss to Carolina.

Gruden, though, felt it was more important to get time off for banged-up players such as receivers Joey Galloway (shoulder) and former Giant Ike Hilliard (knee) - not to mention Garcia, who missed two games this season with a back bruise. Gruden feels that playing at home will immediately give his team all the energy it needs.

"When you run out of the tunnel and you have 80,000 fans going crazy, you're going to have momentum," Gruden said.

If Galloway and Hilliard, who combined for more than 1,700 receiving yards, are healthy, they'll form a dangerous combination for a Giants secondary that has been prone to giving up big plays this season. That unit was weakened when starting cornerback Sam Madison aggravated a pulled stomach muscle in last week's loss to New England.

New York, though, has shown the ability to overcome such adversity this season after a turmoil-filled 2006. The Giants went 2-6 in the second half last year amid infighting between the players as well as Coughlin, but the team was much more harmonious this year.

New York was just 4-4 in the second half, but picked up road wins over Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia, and came close to knocking off the unbeaten Patriots before losing 38-35.

While their aggressive defense may be able to do enough to keep them in Sunday's game, the Giants' hopes of earning their first playoff win in five tries - a slide that started with a 34-7 defeat to Baltimore in the 2001 Super Bowl - rest largely with Eli Manning.

The fourth-year quarterback had a strong performance last week, going 22-for-32 for 251 yards, four touchdowns and one interception, but a lack of consistency has plagued him throughout his career. So have turnovers, as he threw a career-high 20 INTs this season to 23 TDs.

While New York boasts a versatile rushing attack led by the bruising Brandon Jacobs (1,009 yards) and emerging rookie Ahmad Bradshaw (8.3 yards per carry), Manning's ability to put together at the very least a steady, efficient performance will be critical to the Giants.

That, however, could be a tall order against a Bucs defense that was second in the league in yards allowed (278.4 per game), first in passing defense (170.5) and third in points allowed (16.9).

"They have veteran players and they are very sound with what they are doing," said Manning, who threw for 3,336 yards this season and will be playing in his third career postseason game. "They don't give up big plays by mental mistakes. They are able to get a good pass rush whether they bring a blitz or just on the four-man rush. They mix up what they do enough and they are very sound and disciplined in their technique and in their coverage.

"The more I look at them I will get a better feel, but I think they have talented players and they are confident in what they are doing."

Those talented players include linebackers Derrick Brooks and Barrett Ruud, cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Phillip Buchanon and a pass rush led by rookie defensive ends Greg White (team-best eight sacks) and Gaines Adams (six), as well as tackle Jovan Haye (six).

While Tampa Bay has some injury issues, the Giants also could be missing some key players Sunday. Madison, along with center Shaun O'Hara and linebacker Kawika Mitchell, did not practice Wednesday, and Coughlin wouldn't speculate on their status.

New York is also without tight end Jeremy Shockey, who suffered a broken leg Dec. 16 against Washington and was placed on injured reserve.

The Giants and Bucs have never met in the playoffs. New York has won two of the last three meetings, most recently a 17-3 home victory Oct. 29, 2006, and leads the series 10-6. Tampa Bay, though, has won five of nine matchups at home.

By: Staff Writers - Email Us

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