WITH ONE MINUTE REMAINING in New York's 24-14 playoff victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, Jan. 6, Eli Manning faced one more blind-side rush. As he stood on the sideline, Manning was approached by the Giants' chairman and executive vice president, Steve Tisch, who offered his congratulations to the fourth-year quarterback on his first playoff victory. Coach Tom Coughlin approached Manning as well. Soon the entire Giants sideline was one large receiving line as players and coaches exchanged hugs and high fives on the franchise's first playoff win since January 2001.
"We have good character, and we have good leaders," Coughlin said after the game. "When things go bad, we have some guys who can settle things down. We have some physical toughness, and we have some mental toughness. We have some resiliency."
The Giants needed it all in overcoming a 7-0 deficit following a first quarter in which they gained minus-two yards and appeared headed toward a wild-card playoff loss for the third straight year. Instead, they reeled off 24 straight points to earn the win.
For most of the previous week, the Giants had to confront questions about their shortcomings. Manning had never won a playoff game. Coughlin had never won a playoff game as Giants coach. The Giants entered the game with a -9 turnover margin, while the Buccaneers' was +15. To top it off, New York was facing a Tampa team with quarterback Jeff Garcia, who was 2-0 against them in the playoffs—a come-from-behind victory five years ago with San Francisco and a grind-it-out win last season with Philadelphia.
But after giving up a touchdown on Tampa's second possession, the Giants' defense started suffocating Garcia into mistakes. He threw two interceptions and made several off-balance throws as the pocket started to collapse around him. Garcia finished the day 23 of 39 for 207 yards and had a 60.5 quarterback rating. (Manning was 20 of 27 for 185 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 117.1 quarterback rating.)
An underlying theme leading up to the game had been each team's preparation in the final week of the season. Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden decided to rest many of his starters, while Coughlin sent his best out to try and derail the New England Patriots' perfect season. As it turned out, the Giants might have won this game because of confidence gained from their sturdy showing in the 38-35 loss to New England.
After an 0-2 start, a six-game winning streak and some choppy play in the second half of the season, New York was peaking at the right time, and Manning looked as comfortable as ever in a Giants uniform. He exhibited patience and poise against Tampa's opportunistic defense.
"Everybody stepped up and had a role," Manning said. "All of our running backs, tight ends, receivers, special teams. But now you can't just be satisfied with what you're doing. It's about the bigger picture and keeping this thing going."