TAMPA — Jon Gruden was right.
For a quarter, at least.
And then it fell apart.
Tampa Bay committed three turnovers, Eli Manning played the finest playoff game of his short career and the Buccaneers struggled offensively in a 24-14 NFC Wild Card playoff loss to the New York Giants on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
The Buccaneers (9-8) ended the season with four losses in their final five games and are now 0-2 in the postseason since winning Super Bowl XXXVII.
Both losses have come at home.
The loss ended Tampa Bay's surprising turnaround season after a 4-12 2006 that had most questioning whether head coach Jon Gruden was the right coach to lead this team.
But there were bigger questions after Sunday's loss.
Like how did a team like the Bucs, who put such value on the turnover ratio and were one of the league's leaders in the category, finish a devastating minus-3 against the Giants (11-6)?
"This is playoff football," Bucs C John Wade said. "You can't lose the turnover battle."
But Tampa Bay did. And the Giants, who had one of the worst turnover ratios in the NFL, didn't.
"At home, they (Tampa Bay) had really just the one loss that we considered and it was by turning the ball over," Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said. "That's the only way Jacksonville was able to win."
The Giants mimicked that on Sunday, as Tampa Bay's first two turnovers were critical.
First kickoff returner Micheal Spurlock fumbled away the opening kickoff of the second half — right in front of Gruden. The Bucs, already down 14-7, fell behind by 10 after Lawrence Tynes' 25-yard field goal made it 17-7.
"The guy grabbed me and I was trying to get away from him and as I was going down I lost the ball," Spurlock said. "No big hit, no nothing. I have to hang onto the ball."
Many Bucs felt as if the game had just been stolen from them.
"They snatched it (momentum) from us at the start of that second half," Bucs CB Ronde Barber said.
But the Bucs were still in the contest as Jeff Garcia drove them down the field on the ensuing possession. The Bucs were at the Giants 27 when Garcia made perhaps his worst decision of the season, throwing to a well-covered Joey Galloway in the end zone. The Giants' Corey Webster picked off the pass with 6:17 left in the third quarter, robbing the Bucs of at least a field goal that would have made it a one-score contest again.
Garcia said afterward that he looked first to TE Alex Smith in the middle, but pressure from the Giants front four — which was constant all afternoon — forced him to make the throw to Galloway, who had only one catch on Sunday and appeared limited due to a sore shoulder and extra attention from the Giants secondary.
"(Webster) did a great job of forcing Joey to the sideline," Garcia said. "Usually in bump-and-run coverage Joey has been able to separate. I was a little late on the throw because of the blitz. You can't do that from the 30-yard line."
Garcia went 23-of-39 for 207 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions, finishing with a quarterback rating of 60.5. Garcia had not thrown that many passes since he threw 41 against Jacksonville on Oct. 28.
Since his injury against Washington on Nov. 25, Garcia had thrown 54 passes entering the playoff game. Gruden sat Garcia last week, as he did several key veterans, and Garcia said he didn't feel rusty.
"I don't think it had an effect on me or the rest of my teammates," Garcia said. "They just played well defensively. … I don't want to harp on whether we were rusty or not."
The Giants banged Garcia all afternoon, taking advantage of a young offensive line that found itself on its heels after an exceptional first quarter.
The Bucs dominated the first 15 minutes, limiting the Giants to minus-2 total yards. Bucs RB Earnest Graham scored a 1-yard touchdown late in the quarter, part of a 44-yard first quarter rushing and receiving.
Graham finished with 63 yards rushing and was effective when called upon. But as the Bucs fell further behind, his presence decreased.
In the second quarter the Giants siphoned off the Bucs' momentum.
It started with Manning. The much-maligned younger brother of Peyton played more like Garcia on Sunday. He went 20-of-27 passing for 185 yards and two touchdowns. As the Bucs sought to shut down power back Brandon Jacobs — he had only 34 yards, but scored twice ¬— Manning took what the Bucs defense gave him, mostly underneath routes that didn't seem like much but moved the chains.
"My thought process was to play really safe, don't force anything," Manning said.
His first TD pass was just that, a short screen to Jacobs that Bucs LB Derrick Brooks nearly picked off. Instead Jacobs rumbled in from 5 yards out to tie the game in the second quarter. On the next drive, Jacobs did the honors himself from 8 yards out. The key play of the drive was a short pass from Manning to Steve Smith that the second-year receiver turned into a 21-yard gain.
Then the Giants delivered the final blow, a 15-play, 92-yard drive that chewed up nearly nine minutes of clock in the third and fourth quarters. The Giants finally got their running game going, and Manning hit two key third-down passes, including the 4-yard touchdown pass to WR Amani Toomer.
"When you say it like that, I'm (finally) starting to get my breath again." Bucs DT Chris Hovan said.
With just 8:03 left in the game, there was little air left to keep the Bucs' season alive.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for the Sun-Herald and BucsBlitz.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Want the inside scoop on the Buccaneers, from locker room updates to insider information on free agency and the NFL Draft? Click here to subscribe.
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.