TAMPA, Fla. -- Beset by injuries, and playing without three starters, the New York Giants' defense determined before Sunday's wild-card game that it was going to make plays, not excuses.
And in a 24-14 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the patchwork unit did just that.
During a triumph that advanced the Giants to the second stanza of the playoffs for the first time since 2000 and a divisional-round matchup against the NFC East archrival Dallas Cowboys, the defense surrendered only 20 first downs, 271 yards and two scores, the latter touchdown coming in the game's fading minutes. And although the Giants didn't make a lot of big plays -- the NFL's leading pass rush mustered just one sack of Tampa Bay quarterback Jeff Garcia and the overall defense authored only one takeaway -- they came up with a lot of timely ones.
"Except for a couple [glitches], yeah, I thought we were solid," said weakside linebacker Gerris Wilkinson, who started in place of the injured Kawika Mitchell and registered seven tackles. "You always think that you can play better than you do. When they put on the tape in the [defensive] meeting, there's always something that shows up, where you know you could have been a little better. But today, I thought we did most of the little things well."
And those little things added up to a big victory for a New York team that desperately needed a win after having been ousted from the playoffs in the first round each of the past two years.
The Giants played without Mitchell (who suffered a sprained knee in the Week 17 loss to New England), strongside linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka (broken left leg) and right cornerback Sam Madison (abdominal strain). But their replacements all played well. In addition to Wilkinson, the Giants got very good performances from Reggie Torbor and Corey Webster, who replaced Kiwanuka and Madison, respectively.
They also got some help from the Bucs, who, after a solid start on the ground, all but abandoned the running game in the second quarter and became too one-dimensional on offense. Led by tailback Earnest Graham, the Bucs ran 12 times for 31 yards in the first quarter -- not spectacular stuff, but effective enough. In the second quarter, though, the Bucs attempted only one running play. And a New York unit that looked like the second-quickest defense on the field in the first quarter caught up and then eclipsed the Bucs in all phases.
New York clamped down on Graham, began to compress the pocket on Garcia and all but took away wide receiver Joey Galloway, the Bucs' lone big-play threat, who was slowed by a shoulder injury.
Garcia was forced to throw underneath and didn't complete a pass longer than 15 yards until there was just under six minutes remaining in the game. Tampa Bay, which ended up with only six completions of more than 10 yards (three of those in the final half of the last quarter), averaged only 9.0 yards per catch.
Said Garcia: "Their secondary did a great job. They got their hands on our receivers, played really physical and kind of redirected their routes. We just couldn't get the ball up the field."
In fact, the Bucs, whose passing game by nature is often too horizontal, rarely challenged the Giants deep. And on the one chance Tampa Bay had to make a play up the field, on a second-and-7 from the New York 27-yard line, Garcia underthrew Galloway in the end zone and Webster intercepted the pass.
Often viewed as a disappointment, Webster also had two other passes defensed, and coach Tom Coughlin rated his performance as "outstanding" in his postgame assessment.
"I think we all knew what was at stake here," said Webster, a second-round pick out of LSU in 2005. "We didn't want to be a 'one-and-done' team again. We had a lot of people out of the lineup. But the guys who did play, well, we weren't going to let us go home early again."
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.