Wednesday, December 21, 2011 Updated: December 23, 9:55 AM ET
Sorry Gang, top WRs in N.Y. wear blue
By Johnette Howard ESPNNewYork.com
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Mario Manningham has been fighting a knee injury and is now his team's third-best wide receiver this season, which is no slight considering the Giants -- not Green Bay or New Orleans -- are the only NFL team right now that has two 1,000-yard wide receivers, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks.
So Manningham's behavior on Wednesday was completely justified, if a little out of character, when, hearing one question after another about facing Jets cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie in this Saturday's Christmas Eve showdown, he finally scoffed yeah, they're good. But they ain't all that.
Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks give the Giants their first wide receiver duo with 1,000-plus yards in franchise history.
"I ain't about to put them on a pedestal -- they're still cornerbacks like we faced all year," Manningham said. "We played them preseason. It's just quarterbacks are too scared to throw [Revis's] way, I feel like.
"I mean, you can't just go off what you heard or what people heard on the street," Manningham went on. "Yeah, he's a good corner. But if you don't challenge him, he's gonna continue to be that. ... Really, it ain't their corners, man. It's just their scheme, their scheme of defense. The corners don't really mean nothing. They still man [coverage] outside. But it's just their scheme, how they run their defense. People just be blitzing. Like, people blitz from the stands. That's how it is. That's how they run their defense."
Manningham wasn't ranting. He was just speaking quietly by his locker with one foot propped up on his stool. But after a few minutes he did seem impatient, as if he thought everyone was phrasing the questions about Saturday's game backward or all wrong.
Jets coach Rex Ryan likes to joke all the time that he believes you can never, ever have enough good cornerbacks, and Ryan brags all the time that Revis and Cromartie are the best tandem in the league. Some NFL experts think Revis may already be the best player the Jets have ever had, period, not just the best defensive back in the NFL right now.
But what's going too unnoticed is that it's the Giants and not the look-at-me! Jets who have the best pass receiving corps and quarterback in New York this season.
You just wouldn't know it from the attention the Jets' counterparts, Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress, get.
The Giants wide receivers don't have a hip, tag-team nickname like the Jets' Flight Boys, and they don't have any Super Bowl rings yet. They also won't have the luxury of competing against a secondary as vulnerable as the injury-diminished one the Giants will use to try to stop the Jets on Saturday when both teams will be playing for their postseason lives.
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But Cruz is now fourth in the NFL in receiving yardage (1,194), and Nicks is 10th (1,094) despite missing a game.
Nicks is as low-key as Manningham normally is, and he said Wednesday, "I don't really care about stats as much as I just want to win this game. This is my third year and I've never been to the playoffs. That was my goal coming into this season more than anything."
The sight of Burress playing his first regular-season game against the Giants since he decided this offseason to sign with the Jets is a more obvious story, especially after Ryan volunteered Tuesday how Burress "came up to me today and he says, 'Would you like to visit with me about the Giants and all that?'" before Ryan could grill him about any Big Blue secrets first. It was meant to show Burress' switch to the Dark Side was now complete.
The Burress-Giants rematch makes for nice copy. The same goes for the good-natured arguments between Burress and Holmes about whose Super Bowl-winning catch was prettier.
But that was then. In the here and now, Cruz and Nicks have been better than the Jets' duo in 2011. The related argument of whether that's because they have Eli Manning throwing to them rather than Mark Sanchez is a column for another day.
The more important point, for now, is this: The one huge, discernible constant in the Giants' rollercoaster 7-7 season is they have a slim-to-none chance to win when Manning doesn't have a big game.
And right now, there's no better, more reliable feature of this Giants team than Manning to Cruz and Nicks.
Manningham's return is important because it could allow the Giants to play Cruz in the slot, and perhaps avoid Revis or Cromartie.
Manning could desperately use tight end Jake Ballard against a Jets defense that has been torched by pass-catching tight ends all year, but Ballard isn't expected to play because of a knee injury. The Giants could use a healthy run game, too, but that hasn't been there all season, either. And the Giants' pass rush will again be missing Osi Umenyiora, and Justin Tuck remains a shadow of himself because of numerous injuries.
If the Giants are going to beat the 8-6 Jets, they're going to have to rely -- a lot -- on Manning to Nicks and Cruz.
Or Manning to Manningham and Travis Beckum, Ballard's replacement.
Cruz could make the Pro Bowl this season. Whether he will is another question. When asked if many people have asked him about the Giants having two 1,000-yard receivers for the first time in the franchise history, Cruz said, "I've gotten a few questions about it. But that's it."
Little that happens in Saturday's game will stay under the radar, though. There's too much emotion. Too much intra-city arguing about who's better. Both teams' postseason hopes are at stake.
Cruz and Nicks and Manningham all insisted they didn't know how the Giants' offense would approach this game when asked directly Wednesday if the team will go right at Revis and Cromartie. But their other comments proved they know. It seems they'll go at the Jets' corners, all right. They respect them, but they'll also test them, take their deep shots, run routes across the middle and send a tight end rambling downfield on a seam route, same as they have against everyone else this season -- often with great success.
Someone's reputation is going to get a little shinier Saturday. Manningham was just the most vocal about hinting it could be that of the Giants' receivers.
Nobody is putting them on a pedestal like Revis or Cromartie or Eli.
But this is the sort of big game that can.