TAMPA - First stop, Tampa. Next stop, Texas.
As long as it's on the road, the New York Giants can't complain.
The Giants moved to 8-1 away from home with a dominating 24-14 NFC wild-card playoff victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers yesterday. New York has won every away game since falling in its season opener against the Dallas Cowboys, and it gets a chance to diminish that blemish in a much bigger matchup next Sunday, with the winner going to the conference title game.
"We love playing there, we love going down to Dallas," Eli Manning said. "There are no secrets.
"It's a tough challenge against Dallas, we know that. We played them two times; maybe the third will be the charm."
As for concerns the Giants left too much of themselves on the field in futilely trying to stop New England's perfect season Dec. 29, well, forget it. After a lackluster first quarter, New York bullied the NFC South champions.
"We weren't sluggish, but it was not like we were the week before," said Giants veteran receiver Amani Toomer, who had a big game with seven receptions for 74 yards and a touchdown. "We needed one play to get us going and for me to be the guy, I was excited."
It was the first postseason win after two defeats for Manning, who efficiently outplayed his counterpart, Jeff Garcia. Manning went 20 of 27 for 185 yards, with almost all the damage coming after a forgettable opening period in which New York had minus-2 yards of offense.
The oft-criticized Manning should draw nothing but praise for his performance, which included touchdown passes of 5 yards to Brandon Jacobs and 4 to Toomer. The score by Toomer completed a clinching 92-yard, 15-play drive.
"Eli had a great game today," Toomer said. "He took what was out there and didn't force anything. He doesn't get real excited; there is more than one way to lead a team . . . and he showed that today."
The defense also showed up with a superb effort in the three quarters. Cornerback Corey Webster's interception and fumble recovery, and Michael Strahan's nine tackles and a sack led the way. Tampa Bay gained only 166 yards before a late 88-yard drive made it 24-14.
"I think as a team we seem to perform better on the road," Strahan said. "I didn't know we won eight in a row. That's a great thing, because when it's the playoffs, if we're going to go as far as we want, we have to win every game on the road."
Jacobs also had an 8-yard TD run for the Giants, while Lawrence Tynes kicked a 25-yard field goal.
Earnest Graham ran for a 1-yard touchdown and Alex Smith had a 6-yard scoring reception for the Bucs, who have not won a postseason game since the Super Bowl in January 2003.
They didn't seem particularly impressed by Manning or the Giants' offense.
"He made little, annoying third-down conversions when he needed to," linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "If it is third and 8, he gets 8 1/2 yards. That was frustrating."
The first quarter was so lopsided the Giants never picked up a first down. Meanwhile, Garcia, who beat the Giants in two previous playoff starts against them, led the Bucs on a 54-yard, 10-play march.
It was highlighted by Graham, who capped it with a 1-yard TD run. Graham gained 41 yards on the drive.
But when the second quarter arrived, the visitors woke up. Manning found Toomer for 17-, 10-, and 13-yard gains before Jacobs avoided Derrick Brooks to tie it on his 5-yard reception.
Six minutes later, New York led as Jacobs scored on an 8-yard run. Manning completed all four passes on the 65-yard drive, including a 21-yarder to Steve Smith on third down.
By halftime, the flag-waving Bucs fans had been silenced by the power running and precise passing of the Giants, who were up, 14-7.
It got worse immediately for the locals when Micheal Spurlock, the only Buc to return a kickoff for a touchdown in their four decades, fumbled his runback to open the second half. Webster recovered at the Tampa 30 and the Giants got to the 4 before Tynes made his field goal.
Webster, starting only because Sam Madison was injured against the Patriots, contributed again moments later to foil a good Tampa Bay drive. He shadowed Joey Galloway to the end zone and picked off Garcia's weak pass.
"That was a bad decision by me," Garcia admitted. "I was just trying to make a play and Webster had very good coverage on the play."
The Bucs, who led the NFC with a plus-15 turnover margin, were minus-2 in a span of 8:50 of the third period and never recovered.
"That's huge, the play of the day," Gruden said of the fumble. "That play and the long 92-yard drive."