The Tampa Bay Buccaneers aren't as familiar with their Wild Card playoff opponent as one might initially think.
The 9-7 Buccaneers will face the 10-6 New York Giants at 1:00 p.m. Sunday at Raymond James Stadium in the first round of the post-season. The winner will advance while the loser goes home.
Although they did not meet during the 2007 regular season, Tampa Bay and New York did play last season. The Giants defended their home turf in that Oct. 29, 2006 contest by sending the Bucs back to Tampa with a 17-3 loss.
Tampa Bay got an early start in terms of studying film on New York since it has known it would play the Giants in the playoffs for a week. According to Bucs head coach Jon Gruden, this Giants team is much different – and improved – from the team Tampa Bay lost to in New York last year.
That's especially true for New York's defense, which changed defensive coordinators during the offseason, parting ways with Tim Lewis and filling that void with Steve Spagnuolo, who has the Giants defense ranked seventh overall in the NFL.
"Their new coordinator has come to New York and made a real impact," said Gruden. "They have a great blitz package. They're very good with three- and four-down linemen. [Defensive tackle] Justin Tuck is all over the place. I have a lot of respect for [linebacker Antonio] Pierce. He's a ringleader of the defense. They all hit and they all play hard. It will be a challenge for us."
Tuck and defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora have combined for 32 of New York's league-leading 53 sacks this season. They're also part of the reason why the Giants are allowing opposing offenses to rush for just 98 yards per contest this season.
"It's significant," Gruden said of the Giants versatile pass rush. "It's not just the four guys up front. It's the perimeter blitz package. They're a great overload blitzing team. You're going to see their cornerbacks and linebacking crops have sacks. The sacks are coming from all over the place. It's a credit to this scheme and their personnel. They do one heck of a job."
Even in last year's loss to New York, Tampa Bay produced just 174 yards of offense and three points. However, that was with rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski in the starting lineup.
Veteran signal caller Jeff Garcia is one of the main reasons why the Bucs are in the playoffs, and he had success against the Giants in 2006 as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles
After losing 30-24 to Giants in overtime in Week 2 of the 2006 season with Donovan McNabb at quarterback, the Eagles defeated the Giants 36-22 in Week 15 and 23-20 in the first round of the playoffs last season.
Garcia completed 36-of-59 (61 percent) passes for 390 yards and tossed two touchdowns and one interception in those two wins over the Giants.
While Tampa Bay could benefit from Garcia's veteran savvy and playoff experience, Gruden downplayed the significance of Garcia's success against the Giants last season.
"I saw Philadelphia play the Giants this year and lose twice," said Gruden. "This defense is completely different. They've made radical changes, not only structurally, but in personnel as well.
"I don't think Jeff is really that familiar with the Giants. Tim Lewis was the coordinator last year and they made a change. I can't speak for Jeff. Jeff is familiar with football on any planet – he's played all over the world. His experience will hopefully help us. But there are no similarities between the Giant football team this year and last year if you ask me."
Tampa Bay's No. 2-ranked defense in the NFL is somewhat familiar with New York's 16th-ranked offense, although the Giants have been without running back Tiki Barber, who retired during the offseason.
However, New York's ground attack still is potent. It is led by Brandon Jacobs, who has rushed 202 times for 1,009 yards (5.0 avg.) and four touchdowns.
Gruden said some of the players around the 6-foot-4, 268-pound Jacobs have helped him be successful, including wide receiver Plaxico Burress, who has hauled in 70 passes for 1,025 yards and 12 touchdowns this season.
"He's not just a big back, he's as big a back as I've ever seen play," Gruden said of Jacobs. "It's hard because this guy Burress, when you put him out there all by himself, he's a matchup problem for everyone in the league. You've got to stop a lot of different things when you face the Giants. Getting to Brandon Jacobs and doing our best to bring him to the ground is going to be a challenge in itself."
While critics have been quite hard on Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who has fumbled 13 times in 16 games, thrown 20 interceptions and completed just 56.1 percent of his passes this season, the Bucs believe Manning has improved since they faced him last year.
"If you stay in this business long enough you're going to take heat," Gruden said of Manning. "He's a young guy playing in a tough place. He lost Tiki Barber to retirement and his tight end [Jeremy Shockey] to injury. I think he's had one hell of a year."
There's no doubt the Giants look much different in a lot of different areas since the Bucs faced them last year. However, the Buccaneers also look drastically different since going 4-12 in 2006, and Gruden believes his team is much better than the one the Giants defeated last season.
"We have a defense that statistically in the '07 season did pretty good," said Gruden. "We had an offense that featured one of the top efficient passers in football in Garcia. We had a guy [wide receiver Joey Galloway] lead the NFL in yards per catch. We had a top 11 rushing game statistically. We led the NFC [with a plus-15] turnover ratio. We have a punter [Josh Bidwell] that downed it 30 times inside the opponents' red zone. We have a kicker [Matt Bryant] that made 28-of-33 field goals.
"I think we're pretty damn good. I'm just concerned about the injuries. Everyone in the playoffs is humming. We're anxious to play. We think we have a pretty good football team."
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