Mike Sando's game balls
Game 1: N.Y. Giants 24, Tampa Bay 14
Giants quarterback Eli Manning
settled down after a rocky beginning. He might always appear at least a little antsy when plays break down, but he fought through that better in this game. It paid off when New York wanted to keep Tampa Bay's defense on the field to protect a 17-7 lead late in the third quarter. Manning's 11-yard pass to Amani Toomer
on third-and-7 sustained a defining 15-play, 92-yard touchdown drive.
and Guy Whimper
helped the Giants' offensive line get through this game short-handed. Ruegamer subbed for injured center Shaun O'Hara
. Whimper played left tackle when the heat sidelined David Diehl
Left end Michael Strahan
is still a major headache for opposing offensive tackles. He had nine tackles, three quarterback hits, one sack and a forced fumble. On one play, Bucs right tackle Jeremy Trueblood
went into NBA-style box-out mode while desperately trying to shield his quarterback from an onrushing Strahan. The ploy did not work.
The Giants were without cornerback Sam Madison
, but Corey Webster
and R.W. McQuarters
picked off passes. Webster's end zone interception delivered a crushing blow to Jeff Garcia
and the Bucs.
• Special teams:
Tampa Bay needed to start the second half strong. New York prevented that from happening by forcing a turnover on the half's opening kickoff. Linebacker Torrance Daniels
stripped the ball from return man Micheal Spurlock
. Webster recovered for the Giants.
New York punter Jeff Feagles
and his coverage team produced a whopping 44.5-yard net average on six punts. The Bucs' net average was 36.8 yards on five punts. The difference works out to more than 45 yards in field position over the course of six punts, a significant advantage in the playoffs.
Game 2: San Diego 17, Tennessee 6
Chargers QB Philip Rivers
completed passes of 32, 34 and 39 yards on third-and-9 or longer even though Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates
wasn't a factor before leaving with a toe injury. Rivers also was working without a consistent ground game. He faced third-down distances of 12, 17 and 18 yards early in the game, contributing to a slow start. But he averaged 9.7 yards per attempt.
Receivers Chris Chambers
and Vincent Jackson
gave San Diego needed production at the position. They were on the receiving end of Rivers' big third-down strikes. Chambers took heat from CBS' Bill Cowher for failing to play defense on a deep ball Tennessee picked off, but a little more on the ball might have helped, too.
Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson
rushed for only 42 yards, but his quick thinking at the goal line meant everything. The Titans stopped Tomlinson cold on a fourth-and-goal play, but Tomlinson reached the ball across the goal line for the touchdown that stretched San Diego's lead to 17-6.
Tennessee cornerback Cortland Finnegan
led an inspired effort with eight tackles, one sack, one interception, one pass defensed and one forced fumble.
Rookie first-round choice Michael Griffin
knocked down a second-quarter pass to Chambers in the end zone. The stop forced San Diego to settle for a field goal try, which Nate Kaeding
of the Chargers finished with eight tackles, a lot for a 3-4 defensive end. His sack on third-and-14 prevented the Titans from answering Tomlinson's fourth-quarter touchdown.
• Special teams: Brandon Siler
(San Diego) and Donnie Nickey
(Tennessee) each finished with two special-teams tackles. That was enough to win game-ball honors on a day when both kickers missed from 45 yards or closer.
• Scouts Inc.'s Buzz
Giants 24, Bucs 14:
After Tampa Bay jumped out to the early lead, the Giants' base 4-3 defensive scheme became more aggressive with a zone pressure package to force Bucs QB Jeff Garcia
into some uncharacteristic errant throws and turnovers.
Chargers 17, Titans 6:
Tennessee's defense was spectacular, and Albert Haynesworth
& Co. simply dominated San Diego's offensive front, but the Chargers had far more firepower than the Titans and that offensive talent eventually came to the forefront.
• Experts' picks: How did we do? Sunday Countdown | ESPN.com
An early look at looming story lines:
1. Little carryover from Colts-Chargers I:
Much has changed for both teams since the Chargers outlasted the Colts in Week 10. There's almost no chance Peyton Manning
will throw six interceptions in a divisional playoff game at home, for starters. Manning could have Marvin Harrison
back for this game. The Chargers will have DE Castillo, who missed the first matchup. Although San Diego most likely will be without Gates, Rivers is developing a strong rapport with receivers Jackson and Chambers.
2. Burress could again be key:
The Cowboys hope to have Terrell Owens
back from a sprained ankle when the Giants visit Texas Stadium in the divisional round, but he could share the spotlight with Plaxico Burress
. New York's top wideout caught three scoring passes in an opening-day loss at Dallas. Burress matches up well against the Cowboys' occasionally shaky secondary. Dallas has three defensive backs headed for the Pro Bowl, but they didn't get there on the strength of their play against the Giants.
3. Aggressive coaches prevail:
Critics accused New England's Bill Belichick of running it up when his team played aggressively while leading in the regular season. The playoffs already have rewarded coaches who play to win, a trend to watch in the divisional round. Seattle's Mike Holmgren, trailing by a point against Washington, dialed up a 20-yard touchdown pass when he could have settled for a field goal. San Diego's Norv Turner went for a touchdown, and got it, when he could have kicked a field goal with a 10-6 lead against Tennessee.
4. Watch out for Addai:
The Titans ran effectively at times against the Chargers' defense even though Tennessee possesses limited weapons on the perimeter. Indianapolis' Joseph Addai
should face more favorable matchups because San Diego won't be able to put extra defenders in the box against Peyton Manning.
-- Mike Sando
• NFL playoffs schedule