After First Quarter, It Was Downhill For Bucs Defense
The New York Giants began Sunday's playoff game with three consecutive three-and-outs that produced minus-2 yards of offense. Then they went on a tear. Eli Manning and company used a short passing attack, balanced with a calculated ground attack, to manhandle the league's second-ranked defense.

"We started off like a house on fire. We just couldn't keep it going," Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "A couple of big, big plays that if we make those plays ..."

One of those plays occurred during the Giants' final touchdown drive. Facing a third-and-7 at their 11-yard line on the last play of the third quarter, Eli Manning connected with Amani Toomer for an 11-yard gain. That kept the 92-yard scoring drive alive, one that was capped with Toomer's 4-yard touchdown reception that put the Giants ahead by 17.

"We blitzed Eli on that third-down play and they picked it up. He scrambled around and got it off and they got the first down," Kiffin said. "If we get off on that gosh darn play, we're sitting great."

Manning played "smart," many Bucs defenders observed, completing 20 of 27 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns and - most importantly - no turnovers. Knowing the Bucs were 8-0 this season when they won the turnover battle led to Manning being particularly careful with the ball. "My thought process was to play really safe, don't force anything," Manning said.

New York's offense swung the momentum in its favor in the second quarter. After Tampa Bay's defense smothered the Giants in the first quarter, New York gained 127 of its 277 total yards in the second quarter. New York's first two possessions of that quarter produced touchdowns. "They had two critical drives in the second quarter that ended up being the difference as far as I look at it," Ronde Barber said. "On top of that, we couldn't get anything going. I guess we were a little off. We were not on it."

Part of the defense's ineffectiveness had to do with injuries. They were without starting strongside linebacker Cato June because of a reported broken foot suffered against Carolina in the regular-season finale. Starting free safety Tanard Jackson left in the second quarter with an ankle injury, and June's backup, Ryan Nece, was sidelined late in the third quarter with a groin injury.

Despite Sunday's disappointing performance, Kiffin is confident the injection of youth the defense received this season will bode well for the future. "This defense is going to do nothing but get better," Kiffin said. "It's a young defense out there. It's a little bit of a new defense. It's going to do nothing but get better and better. ... We've got a great future here."

Whether Kiffin is a part of that future remains to be seen. Kiffin doesn't have a contract with the Bucs heading into the offseason. "I certainly hope so," Kiffin said of remaining with the Bucs. "Jon Gruden and I have a great relationship. It goes way back. I'd sure like to be here. I don't like to lose the last game like this. I'd like to come back and win another one because we have a great bunch of guys here."

Katherine Smith, The Tampa Tribune 7 January 2008