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Week 18 Picks: Wild Card Weekend, Part III

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Buccaneers vs. Giants
Injuries, QB Play Keys to Game

Take a look at some of the NFC North records from the last few years:
-- 2007: Atlanta, 4-12; New Orleans, 7-9; Tampa Bay, 9-7
-- 2006: Tampa Bay, 4-12; New Orleans, 10-6.
-- 2005: New Orleans, 3-13; Carolina, Tampa Bay, 11-5
-- 2004: Tampa Bay, 5-11; Atlanta, 11-5
-- 2003: Atlanta, 5-11; Carolina, 11-5

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New York Giants (10-6) @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-7)
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
January 6, 1:00 p.m.

Lots of worst-to-firsts and first-to-worsts. Little consistency of any kind. Just from 2004 to now, Tampa was worst, first, worst, first, and this year the best of the division, considered one of the worst in the league, was 9-7.

(Click "Read More" to read the rest, vote in the poll and make your prediction.)

Meanwhile, the NFC East is widely considered to be one of the league's best divisions with every team finishing .500 or better. Then again, Philadelphia has been doing the same thing as Tampa Bay, just on opposite years (first in 2004, worst in '05, first last year, worst this year).

Hmmm .. Philly went from first to worst and Tampa Bay from worst to first? Anyone know the common thread there?

That's right: quarterback Jeff Garcia, who led the Eagles to the division title in relief of Donovan McNabb. Garcia revived the Bucs, while McNabb blamed everyone else for his own inadequacy.

Still, it would be difficult to argue that Tampa Bay has played a difficult schedule, and it would be as difficult to say that they've played well against that schedule. New York, on the other hand, undoubtedly played a difficult schedule, and after an 0-2 start, the Giants reeled off a 10-3 stretch before coming up short in a "meaningless" game against the only undefeated team in the league.

But at what cost came that final loss? Certainly, there was no real reason for New York to play all-out and risk their playoff fate, right? At least, most of the people outside New England hoped they'd do whatever necessary to win the game while they didn't care if other teams mailed it in.

Ultimately, the Giants sustained a few key injuries, not the least of which was a knee injury for starting center Shaun O'Hara, who is listed as doubtful for this game. Starting linebacker Kawika Mitchell also banged up a knee and is listed as questionable. That's not the end of the list, either. Cornerback Sam Madison aggravated an abdominal strain against New England and also is listed as doubtful.

Also, cornerback Kevin Dockery (hip) and defensive end Dave Tollefson (concussion) are also listed as questionable, while wide receivers Plaxico Burress (ankle) and Sincorice Moss (back) and rookie running back Ahmad Bradshaw (calf) are all listed as probable.

Tampa is better shape, at least for recent injuries. Linebacker Cato June is listed as doubtful with a foot injury, and guard Aaron Sears is listed as questionable with an ankle injury, and that's it.

O'Hara's injury has most New York fans concerned, but Eli Manning played well last week against New England with O'Hara and with his replacement, Grey Ruegamer. Even so, the center is regarded as one of the most important players on the offense, and many eyes will watch the snap exchanges between Manning and Ruegamer.

Garcia will likely try to exploit Madison, if he plays, or his backups, Dockery and Corey Webster. New York coach Tom Coughlin and staff will need to be creative to shore up that weakness, especially with Ike Hilliard and Joey Galloway as main threats. Garcia has had a decent, but not excellent, season. He missed a couple late-season games with a back injury, but he was mostly consistent from game-to-game.

The Buccaneers led the league in passing defense, but with the Saints' Drew Brees having an off season, Atlanta losing the only thing resembling a quarterback before the season, and Carolina cycling through four quarterbacks during the season, it's difficult to put a lot of stock into that ranking.

Manning looked good against New England, but he was inconsistent all season, leaving the Giants ranked 21st passing, although against decidedly better defenses. Manning's level of play will be a big factor in this game. New York is much better running the ball with Brandon Jacobs, Reuben Droughns and Bradshaw in the backfield, and Tampa is just 17th in rushing defense.

Going the other way, New York is top 10 in rushing defense and just outside the top 10 in passing defense. Garcia, while good, led Tampa to just the 16th-ranked passing offense and the Bucs are a surprising 11th in rushing.

Against that weak schedule, Tampa was third in the league in points allowed (16.9), while the Giants were middle of the pack with 21.9. Both are middle of the pack in points scored: New York, 14th with 23.3, and Tampa, 18th with 20.9.

Wow. Why did I write so much about this game?

Prediction: Giants, 33-17.