TAMPA, Fla. (AP) – Ronde Barber politely maneuvered around the question, preferring to talk about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers returning to the playoffs rather than his more famous brother, Tiki.

The Bucs (9-7) face his twin’s former team, the New York Giants (10-6), in Sunday’s NFC wild-card game, so it’s not really the time to be wondering might have been if Tiki hadn’t retired at the end of last season to pursue a career in broadcasting.

“I’m not going to talk about whether Tiki should be with them or not,” Barber said. “He’s gone.”

The Bucs cornerback has had plenty to say this week, though.

And, the Giants have been paying attention.

First, Barber’s comments about Eli Manning’s inconsistency and propensity to make crucial mistakes made bulletin-board material in New York. On Friday, receiver Plaxico Burress had a quote he found annoying taped to his locker.

Both teams discount the impact words will have on the game.

“Football is all about the team, all about the competition. It’s all about who can be the best man that day when you line with a guy one-on-one, man-to-man,” Burress said. “That’s what it is about in this league.”

Nevertheless, New York’s leading receiver took exception to a quote describing him as a “special athlete” who was difficult to defend even though he’s not “overly fast” or as athletic as Randy Moss.

Although Burress acknowledged the quote was complimentary, he said it will give him and Barber something to talk about during the game.

“I’m not extra motivated because it’s a play-off game,” Burress said. “I’m trying to get to the next round. … But, hey, motivation doesn’t hurt either.”

Barber isn’t backing off his comments.

“Eli looks good at times, and he looks bad at times. I’m not going to lie,” the 11th-year pro said. “That’s who he is. His completion percentage speaks to that.”

Barber is one of seven holdovers from the team that won Tampa Bay’s only Super Bowl title five seasons ago.

The Bucs are in the playoffs for just the second time since, and the 32-year cornerback is excited about the prospect for success. Coming off a 4-12 finish – Tampa Bay’s worst since 1991 – the team’s career interceptions leader couldn’t be sure where the club was headed.

The defense ranked 17th in 2006, ending a decade-long run as a Top-10 unit. With five new starters and several young players contributing more than anyone reasonably could have expected, they have re-emerged as one of the stingiest in the league.

“It’s kind of like my younger days here, young guys having to step up and play. That’s what this defense is,” Barber said.

“There are a couple of holdovers, vets to lead us along the way, but this defense is defined by its young players, and they’re playing well.”

The steady improvement of first-round draft pick Gaines Adams; emergence of rookie safety Tanard Jackson, who’s started every game; and steady improvement of unheralded linemen Greg White and Jovan Haye have played a big role in the Bucs ranking No. 1 against the pass and No. 2 overall.

Despite the success, no Buccaneers were voted to the Pro Bowl.

“Nobody sees us play, man,” Barber said. “Obviously, stats tell you one thing. But when you get a bunch of people watching you, and you get some name recognition on the guys, then they’ll start recognizing how good they are.”

The Bucs haven’t won a playoff game since winning the Super Bowl.

In its only other postseason appearance since, Tampa Bay lost to Washington in the opening round despite allowing 120 yards total offense; the fewest gained by a winning team in playoff history.

After last season’s miserable finish, winning the NFC South and getting back to the playoffs has been especially gratifying.

“When you get older, it’s not about anything but making your run into the playoffs. And if you’re not there, then your season’s somewhat fruitless,” Barber said.

“You get to this point in your career, and Tiki always told me, you have three things. You make a name for yourself, you make enough money if you play long enough, and the only thing you have left to do is winning championships.”

AP Sports Writer Tom Canavan in East Rutherford, N.J., contributed to this report.

AP-ES-01-04-08 1727EST

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