On the Road, a Gain

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 7, 2008

TAMPA, Jan. 6 -- A season full of typical melodrama for the New York Giants has yielded their first postseason triumph with Tom Coughlin as their coach and Eli Manning as their quarterback. Manning threw a pair of touchdown passes Sunday, and the Giants continued their season-long road mastery by beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 24-14, in a first-round NFC playoff game at Raymond James Stadium.

It was an afternoon of vindication for Coughlin and Manning after the Giants lost first-round games the previous two seasons. This season, too, seemed on the verge of unraveling more than once, and the questions about the ability of this coach and this quarterback to succeed on the big New York stage undoubtedly would have resurfaced with another quick exit from the postseason.

Instead, Coughlin and Manning finally could bask in the afterglow of a playoff victory, and the Giants, the NFC's fifth seed, advanced to a meeting with the top-seeded Dallas Cowboys in a conference semifinal next Sunday in Irving, Tex.

"It was very satisfying," Manning said. "This is fun. This is what it's all about. This is where you want to get. You want to get to the playoffs and get a win and move on."

Manning completed 20 of 27 passes for 185 yards and didn't throw an interception. He threw touchdown passes to tailback Brandon Jacobs and wide receiver Amani Toomer as the Giants (11-6) scored 24 straight points to wipe out an early seven-point deficit. Jacobs also ran for a touchdown.

"We didn't get any big plays," Coughlin said. "But we did get some nice, steady opportunities to convert. I thought that was the best thing [Manning] did."

Coughlin's job security might have been an issue again if the Giants had been ousted from the playoffs immediately for a third year in a row. This win probably ensured he'll be signed to a contract extension after the season, but Coughlin steered clear of the subject by saying: "It's all about our players. It's not anything about me."

The Giants played without center Shaun O'Hara and cornerback Sam Madison, who were injured during their loss to the New England Patriots in the regular season finale. Linebacker Kawika Mitchell, also hurt during that game, didn't start but did play. Coughlin raised eyebrows by having his team give an all-out effort to win that game even with nothing on the line for the playoffs. But that decision paid off, as Manning followed his four-touchdown confidence-builder against the Patriots with a solid outing Sunday.

"I think the way he played last week set the tone," Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce said. "I think it was good for our whole team's confidence watching him play well. . . . He showed the most excitement that I've ever seen him show. It was a monkey off the back for the whole team, but especially for him."

The Giants won on the road again after going 7-1 away from Giants Stadium during the regular season. They'll have to travel again to face the Cowboys. The Giants finished second to the Cowboys in the NFC East and lost twice to them during the regular season, but their performance Sunday left them feeling that anything now is possible.

"We've played them twice," Manning said. "I think the third time could be a charm."

The fourth-seeded Buccaneers got a first-quarter touchdown run by tailback Earnest Graham but didn't score again until quarterback Jeff Garcia's six-yard touchdown pass to tight end Alex Smith with just less than 3 1/2 minutes remaining.

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