Garcia the difference maker

The biggest difference between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' two most recent playoff runs? QB Jeff Garcia. The nine-year vet will make his sixth postseason start on Sunday, giving Jon Gruden one of the most experienced quarterbacks he's ever had in the postseason as the Bucs face the New York Giants.

TAMPA — Ike Hilliard, not exactly a spring chicken in football terms at age 31, stated the obvious when someone asked about Jeff Garcia's level of play in 2007.

"I wish Jeff was 25," Hilliard said. "It breaks my heart. He's seen everything the game of football can bring you."

When Garcia was 25 he was playing in the Canadian Football League. On Sunday, the now 37-year old Garcia will lead the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7) into the NFC Wild Card playoffs against the New York Giants (10-6), a team he knows all too well in the playoffs.

Garcia has piloted two different teams to playoff wins over the Giants — the 49ers in 2002 and the Eagles last season.

Those are Garcia's two postseason wins. The Giants have had to answer questions all week about how to get the nine-year veteran off their backs.

"Win. Win," Giants defensive end Michael Strahan said, who played in both games against Garcia. "We played him what — twice already? In San Francisco they had the great comeback and last year in Philly they won by a field goal at the end of the game, so those years at this point don't mean anything. He is with a totally different team, the third one, (and it's) the third opportunity for us to try to defeat him and hopefully that is what we will do."

It's likely that Garcia has never faced a Giants defense as aggressive as this unit. The Giants lead the league in sacks.

But a Buccaneers victory on Sunday can only be assured, Hilliard said, if Garcia plays his best.

"I don't like putting it on one guy, but he's the one that will make us go," Hilliard said.

Garcia's presence under center is the biggest different between this playoff team and the Bucs' NFC South champions of two years ago. Chris Simms had fewer than a season's worth of starts under his belt entering that Wild Card game against Washington.

Garcia will make his sixth postseason start on Sunday after a season in which he gave the Bucs their steadiest quarterback play in years.

The significance of Garcia's play in 2007 isn't lost on Bucs head coach Jon Gruden.

"I think experience is a great asset when you get into these kind of tournaments," Gruden said. "Normally the guys that do well are the guys that have some experience at this."

Garcia' playoff numbers are solid – 57.3 completion percentage, six touchdowns, five interceptions and a 2-3 playoff record.

Against the Giants there is a significant difference.

In the 2002 Wild Card playoffs, Garcia went 27-of-44 for 331 yards, 3 touchdowns and an interception in the 49ers' wild 39-38 comeback win over the Giants. Last season Garcia went 17-of-31 for 153 yards and a touchdown in a 3-point victory.

The most significant numbers? Four touchdowns against one interception.

Garcia doesn't appear to lock up and get nervous once the playoffs begin. He remains the efficient, near-mistake free quarterback he usually is in the regular season.

"I think one of the things that I am well aware of is how things change in the postseason compared to the regular season," Garcia said. "The hitting is harder. The speed seems faster. The excitement is at a new level. The emotions are at a new level. So how you control that or deal with that throughout the week in your preparation is definitely key."

Simms, in his only playoff appearance, went 25-of-38 for 198 yards and two interceptions. Those are costly mistakes in any playoff game and those are the mistakes the Bucs are used to Garcia avoiding all season.

Giants head coach Tom Coughlin saw the Bucs last year in the regular season and has seen the film on Garcia from this season. He seems plenty of differences in the offense under Garcia.

The difference is, unlike many Buccaneers opponents this season, Coughlin has the defense that can frustrate Garcia.

"He is the guy that you have to try to do something about," Coughlin said. "You have to get pressure on him. You have to contain him. You have to get up in his face."

Between Strahan, Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck, the Giants have three ends that can do just that. Umenyiora has 13 sacks, Tuck has 10 and Strahan has 9.

So Garcia will be sliding around in the pocket, certainly more than he has since he recovered from his midseason back injury. He'll probably take some hits, too.

But chances are he'll get back up and chances are he'll have done so without making a mistake.

And that's been worth just about everything to the Buccaneers this season.

"This will be a big game for Jeff Garcia," Gruden said. "The Giants clearly are a force on defense. We're going to need Jeff to be at his best."

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Listen to Bucsblitz.com's Matthew Postins every Tuesday with former Buccaneers linebacker Scot Brantley on WHBO 1470 ESPN Radio in Tampa and Clearwater from 3-6 p.m. If you miss the show, check out Bucsblitz.com's exclusive team media center for Postins' archived appearances.

Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.


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