Garcia to return after missing two games with back injury

After missing two games with a back injury, quarterback Jeff Garcia will return to the starting lineup Sunday when the Tampa Bay Bucs host the Atlanta Falcons.

Garcia, 37, took all the first-unit snaps in practice on Thursday and coach Jon Gruden said the veteran passer was on-target much of the day.

"We tried to simulate as much speed as we could," Gruden said, in explaining the process of preparing Garcia to get back into the lineup, "and I thought he looked sharp."

Garcia has not had any setbacks this week in recovering from the back injury.

The nine-year veteran and three-time Pro Bowl performer -- signed as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason – started the first 11 games of the season. But he suffered a bruised back on the first play of a Nov. 25 victory against the Washington Redskins, sat out most of that game, returned briefly in the fourth quarter but was ineffective.

He has not played since, and Luke McCown started the last two games, and went 1-1.

Garcia practiced on a limited basis most of last week, then skipped the Friday walk-through session before the Bucs' game at Houston, with Gruden saying his availability would be a game-time decision. The expectation of most players was that Garcia would start, but Gruden opted to hold him out for a second straight week.

After the Tampa Bay loss to the Texans, which snapped a four-game winning streak, Gruden announced that it had been his intention all along to sit Garcia down for two games.

But the more experienced and mobile Garcia, if healthy, is the man Gruden prefers running his offense, and the much-traveled veteran, playing with his fifth franchise in five seasons, brings stability, leadership and improvisational skills to the Tampa Bay lineup.

In his 11 games, Garcia has completed 182 of 282 passes for 2,135 yards, with 11 touchdown passes and only three interceptions, for a passer rating of 96.0.

The Bucs will claim their second NFC South title in three years with a victory over the Falcons.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.