With a surprisingly comfortable 24-14 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Giants showed a facet of their game unseen throughout the regular season: the ability to adapt.
They opened their Wild Card playoff matchup in Raymond James Stadium attempting to play to their strengths: they gave the football to Brandon Jacobs to set the pace and tone with a power ground game and rushed Jeff Garcia with blitzes. The Buccaneers responded in kind, crowding the line with eight defenders and utilizing quick routes and screens from Garcia to avoid the rush. The result was a 7-0 deficit and -3 total yards for the Giants on offense in the first quarter.
The message was obvious: Tampa Bay wanted to put the game in the inconsistent hands of Eli Manning, even after his impressive four-touchdown performance against the New England Patriots last week. But Manning maintained the same resilience and patience in the pocket that he displayed in that loss. Instead of backing away to release the ball off his back foot, he stood up in the face of pressure and threw smart, high-percentage passes. He even called a terrific game at the line.
Early in the second quarter on New York’s first touchdown drive, Manning saw a safety sneaking in from his left for a blitz. He called Amani Toomer closer to him in the slot. Two seconds later, Manning put the ball in Toomer’s sure hands for 13 yards and a first down, right in the spot over the middle where the safety had vacated. He finished the day with a season-high 74.1 completion percentage and not a single mistake with the exception of one delay-of-game penalty in the red zone. If the Giants expect to stay close in next week’s game against the Cowboys, they’ll need Manning to stay just as sharp as he was this week.
Another Giants adaptation came on the other side of the football. With Garcia scampering out of the reach of New York’s pass-rushers and finding his receivers for short gains, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo scaled back his usual mixture of blitzes and gave help to the secondary. That gave Garcia time to throw, but when he failed to find Joey Galloway or Ike Hilliard open downfield, the Giants got physical with Tampa Bay’s quarterback. Over 15 of Garcia’s throws were hurried and as often as not a Giants pass rusher would slam him to the ground.
Speaking of Galloway, cornerback Corey Webster deserves the defensive game ball for adapting to his new role. Starter Sam Madison sat out the game with the stomach muscle injury he suffered last week against the Patriots, so Webster, who spent most of the season in the hell known as Tom Coughlin’s doghouse, was asked to play man-to-man against the speedy and wily Galloway (who reaggravated a shoulder injury). The result was astounding: Webster crowded the wideout, held him to one catch for nine yards, and intercepted an underthrown pass from Garcia in the end zone. In addition, Webster pounced on the fumbled kickoff by Michael Spurlock to open the second half. If Madison is still in pain next week, Webster may be called on to shut down another hobbled wide receiver: Terrell Owens.
With momentum swinging in the Giants’ direction, New York’s coaches made a smart decision. Instead of relying on Jacobs to run down the clock in the second half, Coughlin changed the pace of the game by giving the ball to Ahmad Bradshaw to gain first downs. Just as he did in the Week 16 win against the Bills, Bradshaw put the defense back on its heels as he compiled nearly four yards per carry.
Now the Giants have to adapt to something else: the idea that they’re more than just an upstart Wild Card team.