DT Chris Hovan and the Bucs were able to handle jumbo back Brandon Jacobs, but the Giants succeeded with a precise short passing attack
For 15 minutes, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers essentially defined home field advantage: Insane noise levels, non-stop defensive pressure and emotionally charged play.
But the visiting New York Giants weathered the storm and eventually felt right at home, taking a 24-14 decision in Sunday's Wild Card matchup at Raymond James Stadium. As a result the Buccaneers' playoff run will end at home for the second time in three years. In 2005, the NFC South champs earned a home game against Washington but lost a similarly hard-fought game, 17-10, in the Wild Card round.
"I'd like to congratulate the Giants," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "They're a very good football team, physical indeed. I tip my hat to them. I'm proud of our football players. We overcame a lot this year. We hung in there."
After a strong start on both sides of the ball, the Bucs lost control of the game thanks to a precise short passing attack executed by Eli Manning and a Giants pass-rush that ranked first in the league with 53 sacks during the regular season. Tampa Bay also committed the game's only three turnovers, thus losing the field position battle in what turned into a grind-it-out affair. The Giants' offense was held to 277 yards overall but was able to sustain three methodical touchdown drives. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's offense started out strong but faded to a 271-yard overall performance, 88 of those yards coming on the final touchdown drive.
The Bucs' defense failed to produce a turnover for just the third time all season. Meanwhile, WR Micheal Spurlock gave the Giants a chance to increase their lead to 10 points when he fumbled the opening kickoff of the second half.
The primary problem for the Buccaneers' defense appeared to be a lack of pressure on Manning, who took short drops most of the afternoon and settled for quick strikes to wideouts Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer. Manning was sacked just once, in the first quarter, and was able to complete 20 of 27 passes for 185 yards, often against Buccaneer blitzes that failed to do the trick. The Bucs mostly handled power back Brandon Jacobs – 50 combined rushing and receiving yards, though he did score twice – but couldn't find an answer for Manning's quick passing or change-of-pace back Ahmad Bradshaw (66 yards on 17 carries).
New York's game-clinching drive was a prime example. Trailing by 10 late in the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers punted down to Washington's eight yard line and the defense forced a long third down. However, the Giants' blockers picked up an aggressive blitz on the next snap and Manning had plenty of time to find Toomer for a first down over the middle. Instead of punting, the Giants sustained that drive for nearly nine minutes, driving 92 yards for a touchdown and a 17-point lead with eight minutes to play. Bradshaw ran seven times on the drive for 38 yards, often breaking tackles near the line of scrimmage.
RB Earnest Graham was solid on the ground, with 63 yards on 18 carries, but the Bucs never got their rushing attack into a rhythm as they spent the second half chasing a Giants lead. QB Jeff Garcia, playing a full game for the first time since Week 15, completed 23 of 39 passes for 207 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He was sacked only once and showed some of his trademark creativity on the run, but New York's intense pressure kept the Bucs from getting downfield.
"We didn't do a great job around [Jeff]," said Gruden. "In fairness to Jeff, the pass protection at times didn't allow him to find complementary receivers and things of that nature. A lot of that had to do with the Giants today."
Garcia clearly wanted to find speedster Joey Galloway downfield, throwing deep to him at least four times, but Galloway finished the game with just one catch for nine yards. Galloway struggled with an ongoing shoulder injury that he aggravated early in Sunday's contest and, said Gruden, was not himself for most of the day.
Despite how the game would turn out, several early signs indicated that a recharged Buccaneers offense was going to be able to capture its midseason form. Two problems that plagued the Bucs' attack during the last month – third-down inefficiency and trouble turning red-zone trips into seven points – were nowhere to be seen in the first quarter. On its second possession, Tampa Bay drove 54 yards for a touchdown, converting two third downs in the process and easily punching it in after gaing a first down at the six. Graham found two big holes to run through on consecutive carries and scored standing up from the one with just under two minutes left in the first quarter. In the end, the Bucs did convert nine of 14 third downs, a strong success rate, but they didn't get to test out their red zone efficiency again until late in the fourth quarter.
And what many expected would be a problem for the Buccaneers against the Giants – the power running of Jacobs – was nothing of the sort in the early going. Three of Jacobs' first four runs lost yards, and the Bucs were able to meet their stated goal of making the 264-pound runner go east and west rather than north and south.
As such, the first quarter couldn't have gone much better for the Buccaneers, as they took the lead, looked sharp on offense and were absolutely dominant on defense. The Giants had no first downs and negative-two total yards after the opening period. However, the Bucs' lead was a mere touchdown, and it evaporated just five minutes into the second quarter on Manning's five-yard touchdown pass to Jacobs. Six minutes later, Jacobs was in the end zone again on an eight-yard run and the Giants were rolling. Far from rattled by a hard sack from rookie Gaines Adams, Manning completed nine of 10 passes on the back-to-back touchdown drives, mostly taking small drops and delivering short timing passes.
The Bucs' defense, already without starting strongside linebacker Cato June, lost another starter in the first half when rookie S Tanard Jackson left with a knee injury. Still, the league's second-ranked unit hit hard from the get-go and actually covered Giants receivers well downfield. S Jermaine Phillips led the way with 11 tackles and Brooks added 10. Adams had five tackles and an additional quarterback hit to go with his sack.
The Buccaneers got the Raymond James Stadium crowd into the game right away and, amid a sustained, defeaning roar the Giants could do little with their opening possession. LB Barrett Ruud sliced through a gang of blockers on a second-down pitch to Jacobs and dropped the big back for a loss of one, forcing Manning to throw on third-and-eight. It was incomplete in front of WR David Tyree, and Ike Hilliard fair caught the ensuing punt at the Bucs' 22.
Tampa Bay's first series went better. Garcia converted the game's first third down with a jump pass in traffic to Galloway for nine yards on third-and-four. Another first down got the ball almost to midfield, but the drive ended there after a false start and three incompletions. P Josh Bidwell was able to roll his first punt down to the Giants' 14.
Tampa Bay's defense followed with another three-and-out, and was clearly determined to keep Jacobs in check. The Giants understandably tried to power Jacobs over right guard on third-and-one, but penetration by DT Chris Hovan allowed a swarm of Bucs to stop Jacobs for a loss of two. The ensuing punt came off Jeff Feagles' foot badly and was caught by Hilliard at the Bucs' 46.
A crack at Galloway downfield failed, but Graham broke out of a leg tackle near the line on second down and burst for 11 yards and a new set of downs. Graham showed off the kind of power running expected from the Giants on the drive, driving between the tackles for 27 yards on six carries while adding 14 receiving yards. Garcia kept the drive alive with a sneak to the Giants' 21 on third-and-inches, then dropped in a little toss over the middle to Graham that took the ball down to the six. Graham did the rest, following a block by G Arron Sears to fall to the one on first down, then stepping through a big hole in the middle for the game's first score.
The Giants tried Jacobs again to start the next drive but DT Jovan Haye burst through the line and tackled the back from behind for a loss of four. The Raymond James Stadium noise, rising again, forced Manning to burn a timeout before the next play. Adams gave the Giants five yards by jumping offside on second down, but he more than made up for it on third down by shooting around right end almost untouched and sacking Manning for a loss of eight.
However, the Giants ended up with good field position minutes later after the Bucs' offense stalled and R.W. McQuarters returned a short Bidwell punt to the Giants' 47. CB Brian Kelly nearly jumped a short pass to WR Amani Toomer on second down but the play turned into a 17-yard gain when the ball got through to the receiver. That put the Giants at Tampa Bay's 32 and another strike to Toomer moved it to the 19. Two plays later, New York faced a third-and-nine from the 18 but Manning converted with a 13-yard pass over the middle to Toomer against a big Bucs blitz. On the very next play, LB Derrick Brooks just missed knocking away a pass to Jacobs, but once again the ball got through and Jacobs was able to run it in easily after that, tying the game with 10 minutes left in the half.
The Giants' defense drew on that momentum to fashion another three-and-out, this one centering around Michael Strahan's second-down sack. The Giants then spelled Jacobs with smaller back Ahmad Bradshaw and saw an instant improvement in the running game, as Bradshaw ran for eight yards on first down. That jump-started a drive that moved methodically back into scoring position on short throws to Burress and a play-action 21-yarder to Steve Smith on third-and-short. Two plays later, Jacobs rumbled in from eight yards out to give New York it's first lead.
The Bucs had four minutes left in the half to work with and did convert their first third down on Garcia's scrambling strike to RB Michael Pittman. A diving catch by the sideline by Hilliard gave the Bucs another first down right at the midfield stripe, but the drive fizzled there.
As bad as the second quarter was for the Buccaneers, the third quarter started on an even worse note when Spurlock fumbled on the opening kickoff return, giving New York possession at the Bucs' 30. The Giants got inside the five but Tampa Bay's defense held there. Even after another Adams sack was rendered moot by a delay-of-game call, CB Brian Kelly stopped Smith short on a third-down pass and the Giants settled for Lawrence Tynes' 25-yard field goal.
On the ensuing drive, the Bucs showed a continuing commitment to the ground game, running Graham on the first three plays to gain a first down. A roughing-the-passer penalty on DT Barry Cofield then moved the ball all the way down to the 40. Graham got 10 more down to the 30 on a draw play, but the Giants' defense took the ball away again two plays later. Garcia tried to force a deep throw in to Galloway despite tight coverage, but CB Corey Webster easily intercepted the pass as he ran into the end zone.
Tampa Bay's defense held, however, forcing a punt from the 15 that Feagles blasted out of bounds at the Bucs' 33. Alex Smith's 15-yard catch on third down got the ball over midfield, but the draft ended moments later after another failed attempt to hit Galloway downfield and a near interception by S Michael Johnson. Bidwell's sky-scraping punt was fair caught at the eight.
The Bucs defense forced a third-and-seven and then blitzed, but the Giants' line held and Manning found Toomer for a gain of 11. From there, New York's drive took off on the hard-driving legs of Bradshaw, the back-up back. The possession chewed 8:37 off the clock, as Manning finished the 92-yard drive with a four-yard touchdown pass to Toomer.
The Bucs followed with their longest drive of the day, but it was too little, too late. Garcia completed eight of 10 passes for 84 yards on the drive, including a 26-yarder to RB Pittman, and finished with a six-yard scoring toss to Smith.
For their onside kick attempt, the Bucs appeared to try to blast it off one of the Giants' front-line men, but the ball shot through the line to RB Reuben Droughns, who was alone downfield. The Bucs got a three-and-out, using two timeouts in the process, and started again at their own 27. After a 17-yard strike to Pittman, Garcia tried a desperation heave down the right sideline to Clayton but it was intercepted by McQuarters. The play was initially ruled incomplete but a review showed McQuarters touching the toes of his left foot just inbounds.
The Buccaneers' season thus comes to an end. The Giants move on to Dallas next weekend to face the Cowboys in one of two NFC Divisional Playoff games. The other conference matchup sends Seattle to Green Bay.
Game Notes: With Sunday's loss the Bucs are now 6-9 all-time in the postseason. They own a 4-3 record in home playoff games. … Sunday's game marked the first time Tampa Bay has faced the New York Giants in the postseason. However, of the 15 playoff games in Buccaneers history, nine have now come against teams from the NFC East. The Bucs are 2-2 all-time against Philadelphia, 1-1 against Washington and 0-2 against Dallas. … FB B.J. Askew converted the Buccaneers' second third down of the game with a fullback dive for three yards on third-and-inches. It was Askew's first carry as a Buccaneer, as he had none during the regular season.
Inactives: The Buccaneers declared the following eight players inactive for Sunday's game: WR Chad Lucas, WR Brian Clark, CB Sammy Davis, S Donte Nicholson, RB Kenneth Darby, LB Cato June, G Dan Buenning and designated third quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. June, the team's starter at strongside linebacker, was out due to injury.
The Giants declared the following eight players inactive: RB Danny Ware, CB Sam Madison, DB Geoffrey Pope, C Shaun O'Hara, DT Manny Wright, WR Sinorice Moss, TE Jerome Collins and designated third quarterback Jared Lorenzen. Madison, O'Hara and Moss were all out due to injuries, and Madison and O'Hara are regular starters for the Giants.
Injuries: For the Buccaneers, S Tanard Jackson left the game in the second quarter with a knee injury and did not return. TE Alex Smith sustained an ankle injury early in the second half but returned to the game quickly. G Davin Joseph and S Kalvin Pearson suffered from cramps in the third quarter but bother were able to return.
For the Giants, DT Jay Alford suffered a knee sprain in the first quarter and did not return.