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OPPONENT: New York Giants
WHERE: Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
WHERE THE GIANTS STAND: The Giants are 10-6 and finished the 2007 regular season in second place in the NFC East division.
GIANTS HEAD COACH: Tom Coughlin
GIANTS OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Kevin Gilbride
GIANTS DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Steve Spagnuoio
GIANTS SPECIAL TEAMS COACH: Tom Quinn
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS OFFENSE
OVERALL: 18th (326 ypg)
RUSHING: 11th (117 ypg)
PASSING: 16th (209 ypg)
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS DEFENSE
OVERALL: 2nd (278 ypg)
RUSHING: 17th (107 ypg)
PASSING: 1st (170 ypg)
NEW YORK GIANTS OFFENSE
OVERALL: 16th (331 ypg)
RUSHING: 4th (134 ypg)
PASSING: 21st (197 ypg)
NEW YORK GIANTS DEFENSE
OVERALL: 7th (305 ypg)
RUSHING: 8th (97 ypg)
PASSING: 11th (207 ypg)
DID YOU KNOW …
… the Giants produced a 7-1 record on the road during the 2007 regular season?
SCOUTING THE GIANTS
The last time Tampa Bay faced a quarterback named Manning its defense got picked apart in a 33-14 loss in Week 5 of the regular season. Fortunately for the Buccaneers, they will not be facing Indianapolis Colts QB Peyton Manning again. Instead, Tampa Bay's defense will be challenged by Peyton's younger brother, Eli Manning.
Although he's got a strong arm and prototype, 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame, Manning has been extremely inconsistent throughout his career, and this season has been no exception.
Manning completed 297-of-529 (56.1 percent) of his pass attempts for 3,336 yards and tossed 23 touchdowns en route to leading the Giants' 16th-ranked offense in the NFL in 2006.
The Giants have lived and died by Manning's ability to play turnover-free football. Sunday's playoff game in Tampa Bay will be no different.
Manning has thrown a whopping 20 interceptions and fumbled the ball 13 times in 16 regular season games. Tampa Bay's defense, which ranks No. 2 overall in the NFL, has a knack for creating turnovers, evidenced by the Bucs' plus-15 turnover ratio, which ranks first in the NFC. New York, on the other hand, has a minus-9 turnover ratio.
New York defeated Tampa Bay 17-3 in a regular season meeting in 2006. Manning completed 16-of-31 passes for 154 yards and tossed one touchdown and no interceptions in extremely windy conditions.
Tampa Bay's defense has been inconsistent in its ability to put pressure on opposing teams' quarterbacks this season (33 sacks in 16 games), but this unit will have to get after Manning in order to get in his head and force some much-needed turnovers.
Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin will aim to stop New York's ground attack and dare Manning to beat the Bucs defense with his arm.
Even though RB Tiki Barber retired during the offseason, shutting down the Giants running game won't be easy to do.
New York RB Brandon Jacobs is a tough runner that could give Tampa Bay's speedy, but undersized defense some problems. The 6-foot-4, 265-pound Jacobs will be the biggest back the Bucs have faced all season long.
Jacobs has rushed 202 times for 1,009 yards (5.0 avg.) and four touchdowns this season. Thanks to Jacobs and RB Derrick Ward, who has 602 yards rushing (4.8 avg.) and three touchdowns, New York has the fourth-ranked running game in the NFL.
However, New York's running game, which is averaging 134 yards per contest, isn't entering this playoff contest at full strength.
Jacobs is battling an ankle injury and Ward is on injured reserve. Ward's replacement, rookie RB Ahmad Bradshaw, is averaging 8.3 yards per carry, but he's nursing a calf injury.
Tampa Bay's defense has had mixed results against running attacks this season, evidenced by the fact that it ranks 17th against the run.
The good news for the Bucs is they have had success against some of the bigger backs they've faced this year.
Against Tennessee, Tampa Bay limited RB LenDale White (6-1, 235), who rushed for over 1,000 yards this season, to just 64 yards on 25 carries and one touchdown. His longest run went for just 5 yards. Rams RB Steven Jackson (6-2, 231) carried the ball 30 times for 115 yards (3.8 avg.) against the Bucs in Week 3.
Bucs middle linebacker Barrett Ruud received Pro Bowl consideration this season by being a force against the run and forcing turnovers. He'll need to live up to that reputation vs. Jacobs, who has fumbled the ball five times.
Tampa Bay's defense will have to wrap up Jacobs and take him out of New York's offensive game plan early if the Buccaneers are going to advance to the second round of the playoffs.
Manning has some dangerous weapons to work with in the passing game. The Giants have one of the league's best wide receivers in Plaxico Burress, who has hauled in a team-leading 70 passes for 1,025 yards (14.6 avg.) and scored 12 touchdowns.
Burress (6-5, 232) has been battling an ankle injury all season long, but he still has the ability to stretch the field, which can help the tight end find soft spots underneath in zone coverage.
Even though Giants TE Jeremy Shockey is on injured reserve, Burress' presence on the field along with the emergence of rookie TE Kevin Boss (6-6, 253), who has hauled in nine passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns, could give Tampa Bay's No. 1-ranked pass defense some problems getting off the field, especially on third down, where the Giants are converting 41.6 percent of the time.
Because Tampa Bay does not rotate cornerbacks based on the receivers it will face, Phillip Buchanon, not Ronde Barber, likely will go up against Burress throughout most of the game. The Bucs could even call on CB Brian Kelly, who is considered more physical than Buchanon, to rotate with Buchanon since Kelly seems to be recovered from the groin injury that hindered him throughout the regular season.
Barber will spend most of the game covering Giants WR Amani Toomer, who has hauled in 59 passes for 760 yards and three touchdowns.
The Giants could use some two-tight end sets with Boss and rookie Michael Matthews in an effort to help open up the running game against the Bucs. However, New York's three-receiver packages will include Sinorice Moss, who has a back injury and has caught just 21 passes for 225 yards (10.7 avg.) this year.
Tampa Bay outside linebackers Derrick Brooks and Cato June, who is battling a leg injury, and safeties Jermaine Phillips and Tanard Jackson will each be called on at times to help cover Boss and Jacobs, who has caught 23 passes for 174 yards and scored two touchdowns this year.
New York's offensive line has been fairly consistent throughout the year. It's a big reason why the Giants have the fourth-ranked ground attack in the league and Manning has been sacked just 27 times through 16 regular season contests.
This unit is big and matches up well against Tampa Bay's undersized defense, particularly along the line.
Giants left tackle David Diehl (6-5, 319) will be charged with protecting the blind size of Manning. He will face several players in Tampa Bay's rotation along the defensive line, including first-year defensive end Greg White, who leads the team in sacks with eight and seven forced fumbles, and rookie DE Gaines Adams, who has notched six of his own quarterback takedowns. It will be critical for both White and Adams to get after Manning early and often.
New York left guard Rich Seubert (6-3, 310) could work with center Shaun O'Hara (6-3, 303) in an effort to double team Bucs nose tackle Chris Hovan. Hovan must find a way to battle through both defenders and stop the run and open things up for under tackle Jovan Haye. Haye should receive some favorable one-on-one matchups with Giants RG Chris Snee (6-3, 317) and must win them, especially on passing downs.
The Bucs likely will use Adams and veteran defensive ends Kevin Carter and Greg Spires to work against Giants right tackle Kareem McKenzie throughout Sunday's playoff contest. McKenzie's 6-foot-6, 327-pound frame will be a load for Adams (6-5, 260) to handle on obvious running downs, which is why the Bucs probably will use Carter (6-6, 305) in those situations while Adams is called on to beat McKenzie with his speed on passing downs.
The good news for Tampa Bay is O'Hara might not play for New York in this game due to a medial collateral ligament injury he sustained last week vs. New England. If O'Hara cannot play, ninth-year veteran Grey Ruegamer could replace him at center or the Giants could move Seubert from left guard to center and plug Ruegamer in at left guard.
Tampa Bay will need to establish the running game early in order to keep quarterback Jeff Garcia on his feet in this game. That means Bucs head coach Jon Gruden likely will give the Giants a healthy dose of running back Earnest Graham, who has rushed for 898 yards (4.0 avg.) and 10 touchdowns while helping Tampa Bay's ground game rank 11th overall, which is the highest it has ever ranked under Gruden.
Running the ball against New York's defense won't be easy. The Giants defense ranks seventh overall and eighth against the run in the NFL.
However, this unit is at its best on passing downs, evidenced by the fact that New York has registered a league-high 53 sacks this season. Tampa Bay's offensive line has allowed 33 sacks this year, including 14 in the last four games of the regular season.
New York's defensive line is anchored by Pro Bowl right end Osi Umenyiora (6-3, 261), who has recorded a team-leading 13 sacks and five forced fumbles. Bucs left tackle Donald Penn has been battle tested since replacing veteran Luke Petitgout in the starting lineup, but this probably will be Penn's toughest challenge yet.
Tampa Bay second-year right tackle Jeremy Trueblood has also faced his fair share of talented speed rushers. He will go up against New York DE Michael Strahan, who has notched nine sacks this year and still owns the single-season sack record. Trueblood faced Strahan (6-5, 255) in a regular season meeting last year. He did not surrender a sack to the future Hall of Famer and will need to have similar success in this game.
It will be critical for the Bucs to pick up decent yardage on first and second downs and avoid third-and-long situations. If they don't, Giants backup defensive end and pass rush specialist Justin Tuck likely will pose problems for Garcia and Co. Tuck (6-5, 274) has notched 10 sacks and forced two fumbles this year.
Bucs rookie left guard Arron Sears has arguably been Tampa Bay's best run blocking offensive linemen this season. He left last Sunday's game with an ankle injury but should start vs. the Giants. Sears will need to be able to move as he's most effective as a pulling guard. Sears and Bucs center John Wade likely will spend a significant amount of time double teaming Giants nose tackle Barry Cofield (6-4, 306), who has been effective in opening things up for the defensive linemen around him.
Giants under tackle Fred Robbins (6-4, 317) will be matched up with Bucs second-year right guard Davin Joseph. Robbins has recorded 5.5 sacks this season.
Gruden has emphasized the importance of being a dominant, physical football team since training camp, and this Wild Card playoff game is a perfect example why. Tampa Bay will need to be physical and win the battle in the trenches in order to defeat New York in this playoff game.
While it has some of the same personnel, this year's New York Giants defense is much different than the one Tampa Bay faced in 2006.
New Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuoio's scheme calls for heavy blitzing, which means Gruden will have to be at his best in terms of calling plays, especially on third downs, where New York's defense is allowing opposing offenses to convert just 34.6 percent of the time.
Outside linebackers Reggie Torbor (6-2, 250) and Kawika Mitchell (6-1, 253), and middle linebacker Antonio Pierce (6-1, 238), who leads the team in tackles, have combined for 5.5 sacks and two interceptions. That doesn't even include the production from OLB Mathias Kiwanuka, who recorded 4.5 sacks before going on injured reserve earlier in the season.
While they have the ability to get after the quarterback and stuff the run due to their size, New York's linebackers aren't that quick.
That said, expect Gruden to call on running backs Earnest Graham and Michael Pittman, and fullback B.J. Askew to help account for the Giants blitzers. If they can do that, Garcia should be able to find some open wide receivers and tight ends, particularly Alex Smith and Jerramy Stevens, downfield.
Don't be surprised if Gruden attempts to keep New York's defensive linemen off balance by calling for some play-action rollouts and bootlegs for Garcia. That should also buy Garcia more time to elude the Giants' potent pass rush.
Although the Bucs aren't a big screen-play team, Tampa Bay did call several screen passes vs. Carolina last Sunday. The Bucs could take some of those play calls along with some draw plays over to this game in an effort to make the Giants defense, particularly their front seven, pay for being overaggressive.
Mitchell is nursing a medial collateral ligament injury he sustained in New York's 38-35 loss to New England last week. If he cannot play vs. Tampa Bay, second-year LB Gerris Wilkinson (6-3, 231) will start at weakside linebacker in his place.
New York's defense ranks 11th against the pass, but if Tampa Bay can find a way to pick up the Giants' variety of blitzes Garcia, who led the Philadelphia to two wins (one regular season, one post-season) over New York last season, should be able to expose the Giants' secondary for what it is – a weakness.
Giants cornerback Kevin Dockery is not a playmaker, evidenced by the fact that he's still looking for his first interception of the season. He will be charged with the difficult task of covering Bucs WR Joey Galloway, who caught 57 passes for 1,114 yards (17.8 avg.) and six touchdowns during the regular season.
Dockery could have some trouble covering the speedy Galloway due to a hip flexor he's nursing. To make matters worse, Giants rookie strong safety Craig Dahl is on injured reserve, which means third-year S James Butler likely will start in his place. Butler has recorded one interception this season.
Bucs WR Ike Hilliard will be playing for a lot in this playoff game, especially since the Giants are his former team. Hilliard led the Bucs in receptions with 62 for 722 yards and scored one touchdown during the regular season. He was bothered by an ankle injury throughout the second half of the year, but Hilliard received some much-needed rest last week. He will go up against Giants veteran and former Pro Bowl CB Sam Madison, who has notched a team-leading four interceptions. Hilliard should be able to get open vs. the 33-year-old Madison, who is no longer in his prime and sustained an abdominal strain vs. the Patriots last week.
New York rookie free safety Michael Johnson will be called on to help Madison cover Hilliard, but he hasn't shown much big-play ability this year.
Giants rookie CB Aaron Ross is injured and may not play vs. the Buccaneers. If he does play it likely will be in nickel situations, which means he could cover WR Michael Clayton, a 2004 first-round draft pick who will be playing in the first post-season contest of his career.
If this game comes down to a field goal attempt, both the Bucs and Giants should feel confident they will win the game.
New York kicker Lawrence Tymes has made 23-of-27 (85.2 percent) of his field goals this year. However, all three of his misses have come inside of 40 yards out. Tampa Bay K Matt Bryant has made nearly 85 percent of his field goal attempts as well.
Giants punter Jeff Feagles is averaging just 40.4 yards per attempt. He has pinned 25 of his 71 tries inside the 20-yard line. Feagles will be punting to wide receiver Ike Hilliard, cornerback Phillip Buchanon and/or WR Micheal Spurlock, all of whom have taken turns fielding punts since Mark Jones sustained a season-ending knee injury in Detroit.
Spurlock, who is averaging 27.8 yards per kickoff return, should find some running lanes when the Giants kick off. New York ranks 29th in the NFL in averaging starting field position, allowing opposing teams to start at the 30-yard line on average.
However, New York also has received decent production from its return specialists. Rookie Ahmad Bradshaw, who has a back injury, is averaging 24.2 yards per kickoff return and has a long of 68 on the season. If Bradshaw can't play Sunday, Domenik Dixon, who returned a kickoff 74 yards for a touchdown vs. the Patriots last week, likely will play in his place vs. the Bucs.
Giants cornerback R.W. McQuarters is averaging just 7.6 yards per punt return.
Despite suffering several key injuries, Tampa Bay's coverage units have been one of the best in the NFL. The Buccaneers must receive some big plays from their special teams units and certainly cannot afford to give up any against the Giants in what many expect to be a playoff contest that goes down to the wire.
FLYNN'S FORECAST: Buccaneers 20 Giants 19
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