TAMPA BAY -- With one minute remaining in the Giants' 24-14 playoff victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, Eli Manning faced one more blindside 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. Tom Coughlin, the Giants coach, 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 Jan. 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 in overcoming a 7-0 deficit following a first quarter in which they gained minus-2 yards and appeared headed toward their third consecutive wild card playoff loss. Instead, they reeled off 24 straight points to turn the game into a blowout and earn a third meeting against the Dallas Cowboys, who defeated them twice during the regular season.
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 minus-9 turnover margin, while the Buccaneers were plus-15.
To top it off, the Giants were 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. His face appeared bruised after the game, the result of a day spent throwing against swinging arms and elbows.
"You don't want your quarterback getting hit or feeling uneasy," Buccaneers right tackle Jeremy Trueblood said. "I know as an offensive lineman I don't like looking back at him and seeing him on the ground, so I wish it didn't happen, but it did."
Garcia finished the day 23 of 39 for 207 yards and a 60.5 quarterback rating. (Manning was 20 of 27 for 185 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 117.1 quarterback rating.)
"In all fairness to Jeff, the pass protection at times didn't allow him to find complementary receivers and things of that nature," Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said. "He hung in there and put a score on the board late and kept competing."
An underlying theme leading up to the game had been each team's preparation in the final week of the season. Gruden decided to rest many of his starters while Coughlin sent his best out to try and derail the New England Patriots' perfect season.
"We really didn't have a choice," Gruden said. "People can question it, here I am, and I'll answer more questions. 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."
Perhaps, but the Giants might have won a game because of confidence gained from their sturdy showing in a 38-35 loss to New England that saw Manning and the Giants play one of their better games, even in defeat.
After an 0-2 start, a six-game winning streak, and some choppy play in the second half of the season, the Giants may be peaking at the right time of year. Manning has looked as comfortable as ever in a Giants uniform, and 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."