Commentary

Observation Deck: Giants becoming kings of the road

The prospect of winning two more playoff games on the road shouldn't scare the Giants, who are now 8-1 away from home this season.

Originally Published: January 6, 2008
By Mike Sando | ESPN.com

Two road victories separate the New York Giants from Super Bowl XLII, an appropriate challenge for a team with an 8-1 record away from home this season.

New York's 24-14 wild-card victory at Tampa Bay gave the team more than momentum heading into a divisional-round matchup against NFC East rival Dallas next week. The victory also left the Giants tied with the Patriots for the most road victories in the NFL this season.

The sterling road record is significant when held against New York's 3-5 home record this season.

The Giants, to a degree unmatched in the league, appear more dangerous on the road than at home. They were dangerous even in their season-opening defeat at Dallas, getting four touchdown passes from Eli Manning.

The Cowboys won that game, 45-35, in part because the Giants had yet to master their defense under first-year coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. That defense is playing far more effectively now, and Spagnuolo is the right man at the controls. Look for him to revisit the game plan his mentor, Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, used when the Eagles defeated the Cowboys at Texas Stadium in Week 15.

The pressure is suddenly on Tony Romo and the Cowboys to validate their 13-3 record now that Manning and Giants coach Tom Coughlin have won a playoff game. Manning, not Romo, is the quarterback in this game with a playoff victory on his résumé.

The Cowboys still might enjoy an edge. Home teams have won 20 of 28 divisional-round games since 2000. The bye week allows players to handle ticket demands and other distractions without taking away from their preparations.

Yet the Cowboys' stellar record brought another set of potential issues, with coaches Tony Sparano and Jason Garrett interviewing for head coaching jobs during the bye. No one should fault any assistant coach for pursuing better opportunities elsewhere, but the Patriots were surely pleased when offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels removed himself from consideration for head coaching jobs.

Here are a few other observations from wild-card Sunday:

1. Pressure's off Chargers, others

San Diego's victory over Tennessee gave the Chargers their first playoff victory since the 1994 season, when Bobby Ross was the coach. The 17-6 victory wasn't pretty, and the Chargers absorbed a significant injury when dynamic tight end Antonio Gates hurt a toe and left on a cart. But some of the pressure is off San Diego heading into a divisional-round matchup with Indianapolis.

The Chargers weren't the only ones exhaling this weekend. Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio experienced his first playoff victory in five seasons on the job. Coughlin made it four regular seasons with the Giants before prevailing in a playoff game.

Those outcomes left Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis as the NFL's only head coach with zero playoff victories after at least five seasons in his current position.

The eight coaches with more than five seasons in their current jobs have led their teams to Super Bowls: Bill Belichick, Tony Dungy, Jeff Fisher, John Fox, Jon Gruden, Mike Holmgren, Andy Reid and Mike Shanahan.

New Orleans' Sean Payton and San Diego's Norv Turner are the only head coaches with playoff victories after fewer than three seasons in their current positions.

2. Giants make the adjustments

Persistent eight-man fronts prevented the Giants from running the ball early in the game, putting too much pressure on Manning. Coughlin and offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride had to do something after the Giants finished the first quarter with minus-2 yards of offense.

The Giants adjusted by varying their personnel groupings, formations and run-pass tendencies.

Coughlin surely would have preferred to pound the ball with base personnel from I- and offset-I formations. When the Bucs dictated otherwise, the Giants mixed in some one-back formations with two tight ends or three receivers. They passed when they otherwise might have run. Manning's confidence grew as he enjoyed success.

Using diminutive Ahmad Bradshaw as the lone back worked well because the Bucs weren't going to respect him the way they respected more powerful Brandon Jacobs.

Bradshaw's final statistics -- 17 carries for 66 yards -- didn't come close to reflecting his effect on the game. Running at times from passing formations, Bradshaw had first-down rushes of 8, 7, 8 and 6 yards in the touchdown drives that put the Giants ahead 14-7 and 24-7.

3. Coaching on the line

The Titans have outplayed their offensive talent at times by getting the most from their offensive line. Line coach Mike Munchak, a Hall of Fame player from 1982 to 1994, might be an all-pro coach, as well.

Tennessee's line dominated for stretches against San Diego even after the Titans placed injured center Kevin Mawae and guard Benji Olson on the inactive list shortly before kickoff.

With Mawae and Olson in the lineup, the Tennessee starting line averaged 29.3 years old, the eighth-oldest in the league. Lines with that type of experience, particularly at center, sometimes can coach themselves. Experience can teach players which adjustments to make and how to use leverage against certain defenders.

Without Mawae and Olson, the Titans' line averaged 25.8 years old, making it the youngest starting line in the league. That's when coaching becomes critical.

Eugene Amano, a 2005 seventh-round choice from Division II Southeast Missouri State, started for nearly 37-year-old Mawae at center. Daniel Loper, a 2004 fifth-round pick from Texas Tech, started for 32-year-old Olson at right guard.

Amano and Loper were at their best clearing Chargers nose tackle Jamal Williams out of the way on a 13-yard run on third-and-2 from the San Diego 26. Unfortunately for the Titans, the drive ended with a lost fumble. But the team without LaDainian Tomlinson held a 119-68 advantage in rushing yardage.

Amano started five games late in the season. Loper had never started an NFL game.

4. Third down separates Giants, Bucs

Tampa Bay's third-down success rate against New York qualified as one of the more misleading stats. The Bucs converted nine of 14 times, compared with five of 12 for the Giants, but Manning made his conversions count.

The Giants spread their five third-down conversions across four drives. Those drives produced all 24 of their points. Manning converted three times on third-and-6 or longer. The team scored on every drive featuring a third-down conversion, in other words.

The Bucs converted only once in five plays of third-and-6 or longer, and that drive ended with a punt after Tampa Bay failed to convert on third-and-5. The New York pass rush overwhelmed quarterback Jeff Garcia, forcing him into difficult throws and hasty decisions.

Manning felt pressure, too, but he still managed to complete a few key passes. The Giants converted three of their final five chances from between third-and-6 and third-and-10. That marked an improvement over their 31.3 conversion rate on pass plays in those situations during the regular season.

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.