TAMPA — For two seasons, whenever Eli Manning found himself in a nerve-racking situation, he turned to one man to usher him through the fire.
When the Giants' Super Bowl MVP quarterback needed to find absolute focus, his quarterbacks coach, Mike Sullivan, helped him do it.
Among other things, Sullivan taught Manning about "trying to make great decisions" and "trusting your instincts," Manning said this week.
But Sullivan became the Bucs' offensive coordinator before this season, and now his history with Manning is one of several story lines swirling around Sunday's game pitting the Bucs against the Giants.
No longer do Sullivan and Manning spend hours on end in a meeting room, hunkered down side by side preparing for the next game.
"Working with someone like that — very professional, very committed — you do develop a close relationship, especially with that amount of time and having those types of experiences," Sullivan said. "But you know that he's committing himself and working hard to beat the Buccaneers. I'm preparing, doing everything I can to help our offense prepare and go beat the Giants.
"The emotions, the respect, the memories don't change. But the vantage point and the mission change. It's a completely different mission."
Also, because of Sullivan's history with the Giants — he worked for coach Tom Coughlin from 2002-11 beginning in Jacksonville — New York's offense is a blueprint for the Bucs'. Additionally, Bucs defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan spent five years on the Giants staff before departing after the 2009 season.
The Bucs' most recent acquisition, running back D.J. Ware, is a former Giant, released last month.
And don't overlook that Bucs coach Greg Schiano will return to his one-time stomping grounds after coaching Rutgers, in northern New Jersey, for the previous 11 seasons.
Though the intertwining runs deep, the lines will not be blurred Sunday.
"There will be some subplots," Schiano said. "But at the end of the day, it's players. What can you convey to your players, and what can they do?"
The connections are significant when it comes to game preparation.
Who knows Manning and the Giants' offense better than Sullivan? And why wouldn't Sheridan, who worked with some personnel still with New York, tap that resource?
"I think there will be some communication issues, probably," Coughlin said, noting the Bucs might be privy to some of their terminology. "(Sullivan and Sheridan) are both fine coaches and have been here in this system."
Here's the thing: The Giants believe they have advantages, too. Though the Bucs use different terminology, similar concepts and formations have been implemented in Tampa by Sullivan.
"(The offenses) are like brothers," Ware said. "The Giants are the older brother, and we're the little brother. There's going to be similarities in the game. You might … see something that looks like something the Giants just did."
As a result, Sullivan called the Bucs' perceived advantages a wash. Meanwhile, Sheridan said his defense can't rely on its knowledge of the Giants' offense because of Manning's adaptability.
"They do such an outstanding job — Eli does, in particular — of (changing) plays at the line of scrimmage," Sheridan said. "So unless you're able to really confuse them with different looks, he's going to get them out of bad plays and get them in good plays.
"Eli is probably as good as anybody in the NFL in terms of getting the (play) clock down and really making you show what you're going to do and then putting them in the best play."
Maybe there's no reason to overanalyze this.
At the core, the Giants are "the world champions and a great football team," Sullivan said.
And the Bucs, who stifled the Panthers in their opener, have a defense that "played outstanding last week," Manning said.
The team that lives up to its billing — not which one is smarter or slicker — likely will come out on top.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected] View his blog at tampabay.com/blogs/bucs, and follow him on Twitter at @BucsBeat.