It's year four of the Eli Manning era, and while the Giants find themselves making their third straight playoff appearance, the consensus is that it's in spite of their passer, not because of him. Manning threw four touchdown passes in the season-ending loss to the Patriots. He started the season with a four-touchdown performance against the Cowboys. In between, he threw 15 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions. The Giants lost some games because Manning committed too many turnovers, and they lost others because he couldn't get the offense moving. Week after week, the outcome for the Giants hinged on how well their quarterback played.
If the Giants have any hope of winning playoff games, they need their Manning to start performing up to the expectations the Giants brass had when they drafted him. They were convinced that Manning was so much better than the other two big quarterback prospects in that draft class that acquiring him was worth a king's ransom. So far, there's nothing that suggests their judgment was correct. In fact, most observers would argue that both Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger have significantly outplayed him thus far.
The Giants travel to Tampa this week to take on a well-rested Buccaneers team. Knowing that they had a playoff berth wrapped up, Jon Gruden's team coasted through the last four weeks of the season. He's counting on his veteran players to be able to kick it back into gear and play at a high level in January.
GIANTS (10–5) AT BUCCANEERS (9–7) SUNDAY, 1 P.M., FOX
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL The best way for the Giants to make life easier for Manning is to run the ball well, and they can do that consistently. The Giants finished the regular season ranked fourth in rushing yards per game, thanks largely to Brandon Jacobs. Despite missing five-and-a-half games due to injuries, the first-year starter topped the 1,000-yard mark. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry and 91.9 yards per game — the latter ranking as the third best total in the NFL this season.
Some of the credit for Jacobs's performance must go to Big Blue's offensive line. This is a unit built for the power running game, and if they can force the Bucs to bring defenders up into the box, it'll soften things up for the passing game. Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is the mastermind behind the cover 2 defense, and his unit plays it better than anyone else. The key is middle linebacker Barrett Ruud: He's a strong run defender, but his ability to drop back into the deep zone in pass coverage makes it incredibly difficult for opponents to throw the ball against the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay gave up just 170.3 passing yards per game, the fewest in the NFL.
The Giants can't afford simply to stop throwing the ball. They'll need a successful passing game to maintain a balanced attack. Manning needs to avoid throwing balls into coverage and letting the opportunistic Tampa defense force him into making turnovers.
WHEN THE BUCCANEERS HAVE THE BALL Veteran Jeff Garcia leads the Buccaneers' offense. After bouncing around for the last few seasons, the former Pro Bowl quarterback found a system that suits his strengths. Garcia is not as explosive as he was in is San Francisco days — where he once had back-to-back 30-touchdown seasons — and he doesn't scramble as much, but he's patient and efficient. With such a strong defense, the Bucs don't need a gunslinger; just someone who can avoid mistakes and take what the opponents will give him.
A pair of veteran receivers, Joey Galloway and former Giant Ike Hilliard, helps Garcia. And tight end Alex Smith is dangerous throughout the middle and in the red zone.
When Cadillac Williams suffered a season-ending knee injury in week four, it seemed like a huge blow. But the Bucs have found a solid running game behind Earnest Graham. The former University of Florida tailback spent his first three seasons on special teams, but he made the most of his opportunity to play when Williams went down. Graham sat out the season finale to rest a sore ankle, and the Bucs are counting on him being stronger this Sunday. Graham is not much of a threat to run to the outside, but if he's healthy, he can chew up yards between the tackles. The Bucs will use their ground game and a short passing game to help negate the effect of the Giants' overwhelming pass rush. New York needs to stifle the Bucs on the ground and force Garcia to throw the ball. He can be effective with the occasional deep pass, but if he's forced to do that too often, the Buccaneers' offense is going to sputter.
KEY TO THE GAME The game hinges on Manning and his ability to avoid mistakes. The Buccaneers have a stingy defense and points will be at a premium. For the Giants to prevail, Manning needs to get in the kind of rhythm he found against New England and sustain drives that end in touchdowns. If he turns the ball over or has to settle for field goals in the red zone, the Giants will be making another early exit from the postseason.
Lahman's Pick: Buccaneers 24–17