Rest in pieces
This isn't what Jon Gruden had in mind when he sat all those starting players the past two weeks. Rest assured. Fresh-legged receivers who couldn't get separation. A veteran quarterback, with two weeks to prepare, making bad decisions. Tacklers whiffing at ball carriers.

But all that happened to the Bucs in Sunday's 24-14 loss to the Giants in an NFC wild-card game at Raymond James Stadium. "People can question it," the Bucs coach said of his decision to rest most of his key players for the final two regular-season games, both losses. "We tried to get receiver Joey Galloway and (guard) Arron Sears and a number of guys to the game. The best way to do that was to get them an opportunity to rest and heal. I will be happy to take the criticism.

"We didn't lose a game because of what occurred last week. We are unhappy to lose, but there are plenty of people that (would have handled) it the same way, I am sure."

Jeff Garcia, who played one half of football over the final two weeks of the regular season, never got into rhythm and threw two interceptions. He didn't get much help from his receivers, especially Galloway, who caught one pass for 9 yards before leaving the game in the fourth quarter after aggravating a shoulder injury. "It was a frustrating game, a frustrating day," Garcia said.

Meanwhile, the Bucs defense, which held the Giants to minus-2 yards of offense in the first quarter, allowed 24 unanswered points to New York and beleaguered quarterback Eli Manning. That included a game-sealing 92-yard drive that might have ended in Fort Myers had the Giants not stopped in the south end zone.

So if you wondered whether the Giants (11-6) spent too much energy last week trying in vain to ruin the Patriots' perfect season, now you have the answer. Tom Coughlin's team improved to 8-1 on the road and will try to avenge that lone defeat at Dallas on Sunday. Meanwhile, the Bucs (9-8) headed off for a long winter's nap after suffering the fourth loss in their final five games.

The Bucs certainly played like the fresher team to start the game, building a 7-0 lead behind the rushing and receiving of Earnest Graham, who scored on a 1-yard run with 1:49 left in the first quarter. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's defense bottled up the Giants running game and forced three three-and-outs. But Manning, who threw four touchdowns against New England, went 9-of-10 for 99 yards and a score on the Giants' next two drives.

"He never beat us over the top," Barrett Ruud said. "He made those little, annoying third-down conversions when he needed to. If it was third and 8, he'd get 8 1/2 yards. That was frustrating. Especially in the second half, our run defense wasn't good enough. That one drive they had a lot of yards - 7- and 8-yard gains. It's hard to win if you don't stop the run like that."

On the subject of running, Gruden seemed to abandon the ground game after the first score. Graham, who touched the football seven out of 10 plays for 41 yards during the touchdown drive, had only one carry during the rest of the first half (and one catch for 2 yards). "I can't tell you that I know what happened," Graham said. "Being a competitor, you definitely want the ball. We ran the ball well, and naturally no team is going to let you keep doing that. I'm sure they made some adjustments and probably saw the opportunity to be able to hit them up top. We just didn't get it done. What can you do?"

Garcia struggled to find open receivers and scrambled from a Giants pass rush, particularly end Michael Strahan, who had nine tackles and a sack. Garcia finished 23-of-39 for 207 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. Micheal Spurlock, who last month returned the first kickoff for a touchdown in club history, fumbled the second-half kickoff, resulting in a Giants field goal. Then Garcia forced a deep ball to Galloway that was intercepted in the end zone by cornerback Corey Webster, who also recovered Spurlock's fumble.

"We weren't able to make plays down the field like we'd like to," Garcia said. "We weren't able to really spread out the defense in a way that would allow us to make those plays. It's disappointing to ... talk about a loss because there's a lot of hard work and dedication that goes into getting to this point of the season and now it's over with. I'll go home and stare at a wall for a couple days and wonder what's next and find a way to regroup and get back after it."

Garcia said he didn't feel rusty, but clearly his receivers were ineffective against the Giants' bump-and-run coverage. "I felt like all game long things were real tight," Garcia said. "Everything we had to gain ... was forced. It really was not easy to come by. When you have a game like that, it's very difficult because you can't afford to make any mistakes."

In the end, maybe Gruden knew he had squeezed all he could out of a team that overcame injuries to Cadillac Williams, Mike Alstott, Luke Petitgout and others. As he walked into the locker room for the last time this season, the finality of it all sunk in. "It's deafening," Gruden said. "It's like the music stops. The tank kind of ran out there at the end."

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 7 January 2008