Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
08 Jan 2008
by Ned Macey
The game plan was assuredly sound. The Buccaneers took away the Giants' running game and took away their deep passing attack to Plaxico Burress. All that was left for the Giants was a short passing attack with the inconsistent and inaccurate Eli Manning. To complicate matters, Manning no longer had his favorite intermediate threat in Jeremy Shockey.
Manning rose to the challenge with an extremely efficient game. Combine that with an always-dominant Giants' pass rush and a hobbled Joey Galloway, and you have New York pulling off the only upset of Wild Card Weekend.
The easy storyline is that the Giants won because they played hard in Week 17 while the Buccaneers coasted to the finish line. This may or may not be true, but the debate over playing or resting players can hardly be made based on the results of one game. The only thing that appeared out of the ordinary against Tampa Bay was the precision of Manning in the passing game. If his fine performance against New England gave him confidence that carried over to the Bucs game, then perhaps for that reason, the Giants benefited from their strategic choice.
The magnitude of the upset is hard to judge because nobody knows exactly how good Tampa Bay is. The Buccaneers were a hard team to evaluate because of their Charmin-soft schedule. They had the third-easiest schedule in football, according to DVOA. Tampa Bay specialized in an efficient, ball-control offense combined with an opportunistic defense to pull out a series of efficient wins. The Buccaneers were 7-4 in games where Jeff Garcia played all meaningful snaps.
The problem for Tampa Bay is that their physical talent is scanty, which presents challenges against more talented teams. They beat decent teams such as Tennessee and Washington but struggled against the league's elite. Of the five losses suffered with Garcia at the helm, four came against teams still left in the playoffs. They didn't beat a single one of the eight remaining teams. One theory is that the Buccaneers' quality coaching staff could take advantage of equally talented teams, but at the end of the day, talent can trump game plan.
Before Sunday, however, the Giants certainly looked more like a team of Washington's caliber than that of Indianapolis. That same Washington team had beaten them only a few weeks ago. New York had also reached the playoffs by beating mediocre and poor opponents and losing to the league's elite. Playing at Tampa Bay, down several starters, they certainly did not appear to have the horses to pull out a win.
For one quarter, that appeared to be the case. Tampa Bay's defense dominated the Giants, holding them to -2 yards. Fortunately for the Giants, their own defense kept them in the game. The defensive front in particular dominated the Buccaneers' young line and applied constant pressure on Garcia. The diminutive quarterback took shot after shot, and the constant pressure certainly affected his decision-making. After throwing four interceptions all season, Garcia tossed two in the second half.
Manning is the quarterback who is supposed to wilt under pressure, but he responded with aplomb to the Buccaneers' early charge. The Giants abandoned the run in the second quarter and moved to an effective short-passing attack. Manning quite simply took what the defense gave him and played careful football.
The Buccaneers were successful in taking away the big play, which is normally a big part of the Giants offense. For the season, Manning threw one out of five passes at least 15 yards in the air. Manning only twice threw the ball that far on Sunday, and one of those did not count because of a penalty on Burress. Manning completed 20 of 26 passes underneath, a 77 percent completion rate, surprising accuracy from the oft-inaccurate passer. For the season, he has completed only 62 percent of his passes less than 15 yards downfield.
The 15 percent increase in completion percentage was enormous, because the Giants were required to work their way methodically down the field without much of a running game. After the first-quarter debacle, Manning was particularly accurate on third down. On their next seven third downs, Manning completed six passes good for five first downs or touchdowns.
The offense got the chance to find a rhythm when the Giants' defensive front started to take over the game. The Buccaneers came out lively with two long drives, including a touchdown. The Giants stepped up their pressure and held the Buccaneers to -3 yards on their next two drives. The Giants offense responded with back-to-back touchdown drives and the whole complexion of the game changed.
The Buccaneers are not adept at playing from behind. Their offense is built on sustained drives and the occasional big play to Joey Galloway. The sustained drives are difficult to mount as a deficit grows larger. The natural result is to start forcing balls to Galloway, hoping for the big play.
Galloway was clearly not 100 percent physically. The seemingly ageless receiver excels down the field and forces a defense to stay honest against the Buccaneers' short-passing attack. On Sunday, Galloway was practically useless. Garcia completed only one out of eight passes intended for Galloway for a whopping nine yards. On his other passes, Garcia was 22-for-31 (71 percent) for 198 yards with one late, desperate interception. That line is shockingly similar to Manning's.
The dagger was an interception in the end zone after Tampa Bay had fallen behind 17-7. The Bucs were already in field goal range, but Garcia panicked and took a shot to Galloway in one-on-one coverage. Corey Webster played the poor throw perfectly and thwarted the Bucs' last chance to make the game competitive.
That Tampa Bay would struggle without a healthy Galloway was not surprising. No offense can function if every play is designed to go eight yards. Even with a healthy Galloway, the Buccaneers were likely to struggle due to the Giants' imposing pass rush. New York only recorded one sack but constantly hurried Garcia and forced him to make bad throws. Only a few teams caused the Buccaneers offense to malfunction with Garcia at the helm this season, and those teams all share a common theme: a dominant pass rush. According to DVOA, the only two previous times the Buccaneers had a below-average offensive output with Garcia playing came against Seattle and Jacksonville. Those were two of the only three teams Tampa Bay played who ranked in the top 10 in Adjusted Sack Rate. (The third was Tennessee, where Galloway scored the team's only touchdown on a 69-yard reception.)
The disappointing end should not entirely spoil what was an otherwise very successful season for Tampa Bay. They surprised almost everyone by winning their division, developed a handful of young offensive linemen, and saw an infusion of young playmakers return their defense to its rightful place among the game's elite. The one enormous caution flag is the age of their offensive passing game. This team succeeded in large part thanks to Garcia, Galloway, and Ike Hilliard. Until the team develops a young nucleus in the passing game, the long-term future will be in doubt.
The more immediate question is whether or not the Giants are up for pulling a much bigger surprise next week in Dallas. The teams played twice this year, a 45-35 shootout in Week 1 and a 31-20 affair in Week 10. The good news is that the Cowboys have played at a significantly lower level in recent weeks. The bad news is that through eight quarters of football, the Giants have still not figured out how to stop Tony Romo.
Short of a still-hobbled Terrell Owens, the Giants' hopes rest mainly on the notion that Eli Manning has "grown up" over the past two weeks. Manning has undoubtedly played well in both games, but this is hardly the first time in his career that he has put two good games together. Only once, however, has Manning ever completed 60 percent of his passes in three consecutive weeks. These two games were nice, but Manning has spent the rest of his career proving that he is prone to inaccuracy and interceptions, so a repeat performance of Mr. Efficient is unlikely.
Still, Manning is a good quarterback who played well in both games against Dallas this year. If the Giants defense can do anything to slow down Romo, the Giants offense is likely to put some points on the board. If New York wins thanks to a disruptive pass rush and a few big plays from Manning to Burress, the game will be a surprise. If they win by repeating a high-accuracy, short-passing attack from Manning, then that result would be shocking.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
38 comments, Last at 10 Jan 2008, 12:59am by Douglas Nix