Darrelle Revis claimed he’d never heard of Victor Cruz. Then, the young wide receiver made certain he would never be forgotten.
The talk came days before the Giants and Jets faced off in their most meaningful meeting ever, on Dec. 24, 2011. The Giants were 7-7 and had missed the previous two playoffs. The Jets were 8-6 and had reached the previous two AFC Championship games. For each team, a Week 16 win was essentially a prerequisite to the postseason.
Approaching halftime, the Jets led, 7-3, and had the Giants pinned on their own 1-yard line. It was 3rd-and-10. Eli Manning dropped back into the end zone and connected with Cruz. It looked like it would simply be a first down beyond the chains. Then, Cruz juked between Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson and exploded up the field for a 99-yard touchdown, propelling the Giants to a 29-14 win.
“I think it changed it a lot,” Cruz said after the win. “We weren’t moving the ball very well early on in the game and we needed a big play to come up to change the momentum of the game. I was just happy I could do that for my team.”
The momentum lasted more than a month. The Giants wouldn’t lose again that season, ending with a second Super Bowl victory over the Patriots. The Jets haven’t made the playoffs since then.
When the season began, Cruz had never recorded a catch in the NFL. But the undrafted UMass receiver found opportunity after the departure of Steve Smith and injuries to Mario Manningham. Cruz’s spot was cemented after recording 110 yards receiving and three touchdowns in a Week 3 win in Philadelphia.
The breakout star then broke off one of the most important plays in Giants history, triggering thousands of “Cruuuuuuz” chants and a salsa dance from the New Jersey native.
“We had some issues obviously with our receiving corps and I thought he was the one guy that could give us that kind of play and he certainly did give us that kind of play,” coach Tom Coughlin said. “We all got a tremendous lift when he went coast to coast.”
The Jets picked a fight before the teams met in the regular season for the first time in four years. Revis made his derogatory remark. Rex Ryan said the Jets had been the better team for three years. The Jets were also the home team, choosing to cover Giants signs and pictures at MetLife Stadium.
Tom Coughlin responded with his favorite line — “Talk is cheap. Play the game” — and was soon vindicated.
“They were the better team today, and they’re the better team this year,” Ryan said. “Clearly, I was wrong.”
Giants running back Brandon Jacobs made sure Ryan knew that during a post-game argument.
“I told him I’ll punch him in the face,” Jacobs said. “They got a big-mouthed coach, a big mouth and a big-bellied coach that talks too much and now it’s finally time to shut up.”
The noise would eventually fade. The most important regular season catch in Giants history would remain for all-time.
“It’s crazy,” Cruz said. “Just coming where I’m from and coming through what I went through, it’s just been surreal for me. I’m just happy my teammates have been behind me and my coaches believed in me.”
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