Bucs' Garcia in his comfort zone

Getty Images

TAMPA, Fla. -- It may not be breaking national news, but the Buccaneers are back in the playoffs for the seventh time since 1997. For those of you scoring at home, only two teams have done better; as you might have imagined, the Patriots and Colts have earned a postseason berth eight times in the past 11 seasons.

The biggest reason for this season's playoff berth probably is Jeff Garcia. On Thursday morning, the quarterback sauntered into the interview room at One Buccaneer Place. As he sat down, Garcia discussed his tenuous ticket situation with a team official.

There will be pressure Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox) when the Bucs play host to the Giants in a wild-card game at Raymond James Stadium -- New York leads all teams in sacks -- but nothing like the stress induced by Garcia's friends and family seeking tickets to the game. The alternative -- being one of the NFL's 20 nonplayoff teams -- is worse, far worse, someone pointed out.

Garcia, his face a riot of freckles, smiled.

"Don't I know it," he said.

Indeed, he does. Garcia may well have a greater impact on this game than any other player because he, more often than not, determines whether the Bucs pass -- or fail. More eyes, of course, will be focused on Giants quarterback Eli Manning, but Garcia, one month from his 38th birthday, wasn't a No. 1 overall pick or a passer with an extraordinary pedigree. Garcia wasn't even drafted when he left San Jose State in 1994. And yet:

He will become the first quarterback in the Super Bowl era (1966) to start a playoff game for a division winner for three different franchises. And it's all happened in six years. The 6-foot, 205-pound player has posted numbers of historic significance but is inexplicably taking snaps for his fifth team in five years. Why, then, does he strike such fear into the hearts of the Giants?

Because his two career playoff victories have come against these same Giants. The oddsmakers, who favor Tampa Bay by a field goal, are predicting he'll go 3-for-3.

"This is a challenge for us to make sure it doesn't happen three times in a row," Giants defensive end Michael Strahan told New York reporters earlier this week.

Last Jan. 7, playing for injured Donovan McNabb, Garcia completed 17 of 31 passes for 153 yards and a touchdown as the Philadelphia Eagles ended the Giants' season with a 23-20 defeat. It was a cruel slice of symmetry for Strahan and the Giants, who suffered a catastrophic loss to Garcia and the San Francisco 49ers on Jan. 5, 2003.

The Giants held a comfortable lead, 38-14, with four minutes left in the third quarter, but led by Garcia, the 49ers scored 25 consecutive points. There were two touchdown passes from Garcia, to Terrell Owens and Tai Streets, a pair of two-point conversion catches by Owens and a 14-yard touchdown run by Garcia. San Francisco won 39-38 in the second-biggest comeback in NFL playoff history.

The Bucs allowed the fewest points in the NFC and have the NFL's No. 2 defense in terms of yards allowed (278.4), but it is Garcia who has put them over the top. Last season, with Bruce Gradkowski, Chris Simms and Tim Rattay taking the snaps, the Bucs went 4-12. Garcia signed a two-year contract for a reported $7 million in March and when head coach Jon Gruden couldn't talk Jake Plummer out of retiring, Garcia produced a terrific season. He threw 13 touchdown passes and only four interceptions and his passer rating (94.6) was the league's seventh-best figure.

This should come as no surprise. All of Garcia's playoff appearances have come in the comfort and safety of the scheme in which he operates best, the West Coast offense. It is not a coincidence that the father of that offense, the 49ers' late head coach, Bill Walsh, was a father figure to Garcia.

"We've watched Joe Montana do it, we've watched Steve Young do it, we've even watched Doug Flutie do it," Walsh said in a 2002 interview with ESPN. "We've seen any number of smaller men play the position as well as anybody.

"Jeff is a very intelligent player, he's instinctive and very mobile. He's got great nerve. As far as his performance from week to week and statistics, his ability to take the team from behind and win, his ability to make spontaneous plays, all of those are very comparable."

Sunday NFL Countdown

ESPN.com's Greg Garber examines the special bond between Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh and Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jeff Garcia on "Sunday NFL Countdown. (ESPN, 11 a.m. ET)

To Hall of Fame quarterbacks Montana and Young, that is.

It was Walsh who encouraged Garcia when he went undrafted in 1994 and counseled him to seek his fortune in Canada. Garcia spent five seasons in Calgary, where he led the Stampeders to a CFL Grey Cup championship and was named game MVP. When Walsh returned to the 49ers in 1999, he promptly signed Garcia, who wound up starting 10 games that season when Young suffered what turned out to be a career-ending concussion.

Walsh died in late July of leukemia and before every game Garcia pays him tribute.

"I still pray and thank him before I go out on Sundays because of the opportunity that he gave me, the belief that he had in me," Garcia said. "There's not enough in this world, even when he was living, to give back to him as far as thanks is concerned."

Perhaps there is.

"I really was in a lot of ways playing for him, especially when the illness got pretty deep," Garcia said. "I knew he looked forward to every Sunday, to be able to turn on the TV and be able to watch me play."

Consider the favor returned.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.