1. Do you think it's going to hurt the Bucs that they have no real momentum heading into the postseason?
This is an interesting concept, momentum. The Bucs have spun it well during the last four games, even as they've gone 1-3. This is what Bucs head coach Jon Gruden had to say about momentum after Sunday's loss.
"Momentum is making the playoffs. When you run out of the tunnel and there's 80,000 fans going crazy, you're going to have momentum. You're going to be excited to play. Momentum is having a quarterback that is your starter, healthy and walking around feeling good. It has a lot to do with momentum. And seeing Joey Galloway run as fast as he can, that's what I see as momentum. I didn't like what we did today or yesterday, but I don't like a lot of things going on in my life and I'll do the best I can to live a perfect life for you, okay?"
That's Jon. I actually agreed with the way Gruden handled the roster the final two games. As many players as they lost in the regular season and as many that were banged up, Gruden had to rest some starters. He's taken some heat locally, but the fact is the Bucs earned the right to rest some people by clinching the division so early. But, the things that have hurt the Bucs all season on the field — third-down conversions on offense, red zone efficiency on offense and third-down defense — are the very things that weighed them down in their final two losses.
The fact that the Bucs struggled in all three areas against the 49ers and the Panthers — who aren't exactly great defenses — should be worrisome to Gruden. He has to hope that the return of his entire starting lineup — and the rest he gave them — pays off.
2) What is it about Jeff Garcia that makes him so successful? He kills the Giants, including beating them twice in the playoffs.
I think it's the very things that make him such a good fit for Gruden's offense. He's completes at least 60 percent of his passes. He moves the offense efficiently. He avoids mistakes. He has enough mobility to keep defenses honest and produce plays on his own. Garcia has really only had two bad games, against Detroit and Jacksonville, and in both games he committed uncharacteristic turnovers. The rest of the season he's been, at the least, solid. He's not a spectacular quarterback and he never has been. But what he does well puts the Buccaneers in good situations offensively and keeps them out of bad ones. That sort of ability has been in short supply in Tampa Bay recently, and that's a big reason why this team is back in the postseason. His leadership ability is off the chart. There isn't a single player on this team that doesn't respect him, and that's gone a long way this year.
3) Is Ike Hilliard really still that good and why? Giants fans can't believe some of the numbers he's still putting up.
I'm a little stunned myself. During training camp the talk was about Michael Clayton or Maurice Stovall taking the No. 2 receiver slot. But Hilliard stepped up in training camp and the preseason when neither Clayton nor Stovall would and took the job before the season opener. He had solid seasons for the Bucs in 2005 and 2006, but was never a focus of the attack before this season. Part of it is the fact that Hilliard had to be a focus because the two young receivers didn't prove they could get it done. But Hilliard has also shown he has something left. He's excelled at the intermediate routes this season, especially on third down, where he has one of the best third-down catch ratios in the NFL. Garcia loves throwing to him and, in Gruden's world, if you're reliable, you're a superstar. He hasn't been a game-breaker, and he probably never will be. But the Bucs have Galloway for that. When Garcia really needs a completion, he's looking for Hilliard.
4) What aspect of the Bucs' overall game should the Giants be most concerned with?
Watch the secondary. The Giants have what I think is a solid receiving corps, but outside of Plaxico Burress none of them are what I would consider top-tier talents. In other words, I think the group can be handled, and the Bucs have the secondary to do it. The Bucs have one of the best pass defenses in the NFL and a lot of that is due to the secondary. Of course, there's All-Pro Ronde Barber on one side. But Phillip Buchanon has played the best football of his career opposite Barber this season. The opening-day starter, Brian Kelly, has settled into the third corner role without complaint. SS Jermaine Phillips has played the best football of his career, too. He's back to hitting and patrolling the middle as he did two years ago. And rookie FS Tanard Jackson gives the Bucs a hard-hitting safety with corner cover skills. This group has played Monte Kiffin's Cover 2 scheme so well he's felt comfortable putting them in Cover 3 and Cover 4 sets (which they disguise by running out of their base formation). Quarterbacks have struggled picking up on that this year. If they're able to lock down on coverage the way they have most of this season, Eli Manning could have a long day.
5) What's your prediction for Sunday?
I know the court of public opinion is with the Giants on this one, but I'm taking the Bucs for three reasons. I think Garcia will make fewer mistakes than Manning. I think the Bucs secondary will have a big day and I think the Bucs will find a way to neutralize the Giants' stellar pass rush, probably by relying on the running game. It will be a low-scoring game, something the Bucs are quite used to. I'll say Bucs 17, Giants 13.
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