The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may look beatable with a 37-year-old quarterback and an aging defense, but both on the field and on the sidelines, they’re one of the smartest teams in the NFL.
In other words, when the Giants play in Florida on Sunday, it’s going to be a tight game with virtually no room for mistakes.
Jeff Garcia has turned back the clock to lead the Buccaneers without being flashy. While he’s racked up only 13 touchdowns all season, the former 49er and Eagle has thrown only four interceptions in 327 attempts and lost two fumbles throughout the year.
The Giants should be very familiar with Garcia’s ability to win games without committing errors. Last season, he beat New York with the Eagles in the opening round of the playoffs, when he completed only 54.8 percent of his passes along with one touchdown for 153 yards through the air.
The good news is that with their pass rush significantly better than last season’s, the Giants can win Sunday’s playoff game by continuing to bring heavy pressure on Garcia and force him to make at least one or two errors. When Garcia has been sacked at least three times in a game this season, Tampa Bay is 1-2.
New York will also be forced to deal with Joey Galloway, another ageless wonder. The 13-year veteran is still punishing secondaries, averaging 6.8 yards after catch per game, good for third in the league among wideouts. The Giants will probably double-team him with an improved Sam Madison (who might be available after straining an abdominal muscle last week) underneath and safety Gibril Wilson covering deep routes. If they can hold Galloway to less than 100 yards without a score, Tampa Bay doesn’t have other big play options.
Offensively, the Giants will be put to the test against coordinator Monte Kiffin, the architect of what is known as the Tampa 2 defense. Utilizing speed, especially in linebackers and secondary, the Tampa 2 is a modified Cover 2 in which the safeties cover the middle, while the cornerbacks take the deep sidelines. A talented middle linebacker (probable Hall of Famer Robert Brooks) must choose to cover the deep middle, give help on sidelines or come in to tackle against the run. With Barrett Ruud and Cato June joining Brooks in this scheme, the Buccaneers are the best in the league against the pass, allowing just 170.5 yards a game through the air. Tampa Bay’s defense is built to thrive on takeaways—the Buccaneers are fourth in the league with a +15 in turnover differential.
The Giants’ game plan should be to keep Eli Manning’s throws to a minimum (as they did when he played effectively in the Week 16 win in Buffalo) and focus more on pounding the football against the 17th ranked rush defense with a combination of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. And they must do it without fumbles, something Jacobs has struggled with this season.
If they can force the Bucs to play their game, the Giants are a good bet to get to the next round. But there’s not much margin for error.