Bucs rookie left guard Arron Sears left Sunday's regular-season finale vs. the Carolina Panthers early in the first quarter with an ankle injury and didn't return to the game. Sears was replaced by guard Matt Lehr for the game, but Bucs head coach Jon Gruden expects him to be on the field for this weekend's playoff contest vs. the New York Giants.
Sears battled through an ankle injury that he sustained before the preseason finale vs. the Houston Texans and a knee injury that came during organized team activities this year. Sears remained healthy during the season starting all 16 games and was a big reason for the success of the offense this season.
The second-round pick of the Bucs in the 2007 NFL Draft out of the University of Tennessee beat out guards Anthony Davis and Dan Buenning for the starting position in training camp. He has become a ferocious run blocker for the Bucs offense and has steadily improved with his pass blocking during the season.
"He sprained his ankle and at this point we expect him to play," Gruden said. "We will look at him a little bit more today and give an update on Wednesday."
Even if Sunday's game had any meaning to it, Gruden wasn't sure that Sears would have been able to come back into the game.
"I think it was [a serious injury]. I think there was some concern," Gruden said. "They took him in and evaluated him. We have a number of doctors that have long-lasting evaluation periods so we will just update on Wednesday what his status is, but there was some concern yesterday when he twisted his ankle."
Sears helped the Bucs rush for 1,872 yards as a team which ranks them 11th in the NFL in that category. Tampa Bay finished with the fourth ranked rushing attack in the NFC this season. The Bucs will need a healthy Sears to deal with the New York Giants' defense that is ranked seventh in the league in total defense and eighth against the run.
BUCS READY TO MAKE PLAYOFF RUN
The Bucs head into their second home playoff game in the last three years and want to erase the memory of a 17-10 loss vs. the Washington Redskins at Raymond James Stadium in 2005. Tampa Bay faces another NFC East opponent in the Giants and is ready to get the postseason started.
Several Bucs players were held out of Sunday's loss vs. Carolina for rest to be ready for the playoffs. Multiple starters including wide receivers Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard along with quarterback Jeff Garcia, running back Earnest Graham, linebacker Barrett Ruud and safety Jermaine Phillips were spectators in the home finale.
However, the players don't see that as an excuse not to be ready to play the Giants this Sunday.
"They make the decisions and we follow the decisions they make. At the end of the day, we have to make him right. That's pretty much it," Hilliard said. "Whatever rust we got, we have to come back and play our best ball this week and not make any excuses like, ‘Oh well, we might be a little rusty from not playing for a week or whatever.' At the end of the day we have to go out and play the game. We'll take care of it. We have enough veteran players to get it done."
Even though the Bucs are the early favorites to win this Sunday's contest vs. the Giants, Gruden feels that Tampa Bay will be the underdogs in the playoffs this year. The Bucs enter the postseason with a 6-8 record in the playoffs, with three of those victories coming in 2002 when Tampa Bay made its run to the Super Bowl championship.
"I think when you walk out of the dressing room last night that 20 teams are done. There were 20 teams that finished it off yesterday and we are down to 12 today," Gruden said. "So if that doesn't get you excited then you are in the wrong profession. We are in a single-elimination tournament. We've all seen Villanova and remember Rollie Massimino, the underdogs do flourish sometimes. So I'm sure we will be heavy underdogs in this tournament, but we will see what we get."
There's another interesting stat that comes into play as the Giants make their way to Raymond James Stadium on Sunday. During the regular season, New York was 7-1 on the road, but had only one victory over a winning team. The Giants defeated the Washington Redskins 24-17 in Week 3.
The Bucs, however, went 6-2 at home this season falling to the Jacksonville Jaguars 24-23 in Week 8 and losing the season-finale vs. Carolina on Sunday. Tampa Bay was playing most of its backups on Sunday and still had an opportunity to pull out the victory. So the Bucs, who are one of the best teams in the NFC when playing at home, will face the Giants, who are one of the best road teams in the NFC, for the right to move on in the playoffs.
YOUNGSTERS LOOK TO VETERANS FOR PLAYOFF EXPERIENCE
With several rookies playing a major role in the Bucs success this season, it's easy to think that they will be overwhelmed with the playoff atmosphere that will surround Raymond James Stadium on Sunday. Players such as Sears, safety Tanard Jackson and defensive end Gaines Adams have never experienced the feeling of playing in the NFL postseason.
Even players such as right guard Davin Joseph, right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, wide receiver Michael Clayton and cornerback Phillip Buchanon have yet to step on the field in a playoff contest. This will be an eye-opening experience for these young players that they must shake off before the whistle blows on Sunday.
"Show them a few clips of our Washington playoff a couple of years ago were we had a couple of key turnovers in the game," Gruden said of preparing his young players for the playoffs. "I just think we can analyze it to the point where we're not going to be ready to play. We have to go out there and do the things that got us here; play with some energy, play with a lot of confidence, and understand that it's a snap at a time football game, that's the way we do business here."
Clayton and Buchanon have been on playoff teams in their careers, but had to sit out the postseason with injuries. Clayton was with the Bucs when they reached the playoffs in 2005, but battled through knee and wrist injuries that kept him out of the 17-10 loss vs. Washington. Buchanon was a rookie on the Oakland Raiders team that lost to the Bucs in the Super Bowl in 2002 and was placed on injured reserve that season with a wrist injury before the playoffs began.
"This is my first playoff game playing in since I've been here. It's been a lot of work going through ups and down and finally get a shot to be on the national scene with everyone watching," Clayton said. "It's a good thing to be a part of and I can't even explain how it feels to me. It just means a lot."
There is an advantage for this year's team with the experience of players like Garcia, cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly, linebacker Derrick Brooks and defensive end Kevin Carter in the locker room. There are multiple players on this season's squad that have either played in or won a Super Bowl championship and knows what it takes to accomplish that goal.
Carter won the Super Bowl with the St. Louis Rams in 1999, linebacker Cato June capture a Super Bowl title with the Indianapolis Colts last season, tight end Jerramy Stevens played in Super Bowl XL with the Seattle Seahawks and Kelly, Barber and Brooks were a part of the only Super Bowl in Bucs franchise history.
Bucs tight end Alex Smith remembers the first time that he ran out on to the field in a playoff game back in 2005.
"I think it's just one of those things where I was in awe in my rookie year just to be in that type of atmosphere for the first time," Smith said. "Now I know what to expect so I don't think it will be as much of a shock to me or caught up in the moment."
Smith will do his best to relay to the youngsters that it's a different feeling in the playoffs, but doesn't have a lot of advice for them.
"There's nothing I can tell them that's going to prepare them for what it's going to be like," Smith said. "The game seems like everybody is coming at you faster and everybody's playing that much harder, but it's just one of those things where you have to get in there and get your feet wet."
GRUDEN HAPPY TO HAVE EXPERIENCE IN GARCIA
Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia has plenty of experience in the playoffs and has seen just about every situation that can arise in the postseason. Gruden will be able to sleep a little better at night this week knowing that he has Garcia running his offense vs. the Giants on Sunday.
In 13 starts this season, Garcia completed 63.9 percent of his pass attempts (209-for-327) for 2,440 yards with 13 touchdowns and four interceptions. He has brought energy and leadership to the offense along with his playmaking ability with the ball in his hands either in the pocket or scrambling out of trouble.
"It helps [having a veteran quarterback in the playoffs]," Gruden said. "I think experience is a great asset when you get into these kinds of tournaments. Normally the guys that do well are the guys that have some experience at this."
In five postseason starts in San Francisco and Philadelphia, Garcia has a 2-3 record with six touchdowns and five interceptions. The nine-year veteran is as accurate in the playoffs as he is in the regular season completing 57.3 percent of his pass attempts for 1,150 yards. Garcia also knows about facing the Giants as he has battled New York in two of his five playoff appearances.
Garcia has won both playoff match-ups vs. New York and the Bucs are hoping to add another victory to his resume. His first playoff contest vs. New York came in 2002 while in San Francisco in a 39-38 victory where he went 27-for-44 for 331 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.
Garcia faced the Giants last season while playing with the Philadelphia Eagles and starting for injured quarterback Donovan McNabb. In a 23-20 victory vs. New York in the divisional round, Garcia went 17-for-31 for 153 yards with one touchdown. Gruden, however, stressed that Garcia's experience vs. the Giants in his career means nothing on Sunday.
"I saw Philadelphia play them this year and lose twice," Gruden said. "This defense is completely different, they've made radical changes, not only in the structure of their defense but they made some key changes I think in personnel also."
QUOTE OF THE DAY
Hilliard on the pressure being on the rested players, not the coaching staff, to perform well after the week off.
"It's not the coaches. They are going to do everything they can to come up with a great game plan. We have to go play for 60 minutes. They can't play for us. If that were the case, then it would be up to them. We have to go play the game."
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