EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- This wasn't a touchdown like his scintillating 74-yard catch-and-run earlier in the Giants' win-or-go-home showdown against Dallas for the NFC East title Sunday night. But Giants receiver Victor Cruz bounced up and started beating his chest like a madman after his 44-yard grab anyway, and he earned the right. He'd just restored the Giants grip on their season and the symmetry of what else he'd just done was too impossible to ignore.
The unlikeliest star on the Giants' offense had just made sure they kept plowing toward their most unfathomable playoff spot in years.
And all with the sort of big play Cruz is starting to make routine.
"Where did we get this guy from?" Giants defensive end Justin Tuck admitted he thought to himself with a laugh after Cruz's 44-yard grab turned what had been a throat-tightening second half back into what became a runaway 31-14 Giants' win.
Laughing again now, Tuck added: "It gets to the point where you look at him -- that catch over the middle in the fourth quarter -- and it's like, 'Why didn't you score? You do it every other day.'"
Cruz's play was important because the Cowboys' offense had rallied to tighten up what had been a 21-0 halftime lead into a 21-14 nail-biter. The Cowboys' defense was also pitching a near shutout against the Giants in the second half. The situation was third-and-seven from their own 28, and the Giants desperately needed to answer Dallas when Giants quarterback Eli Manning barely eluded the rush, and let the ball go with just under 9 ½ minutes to play.
Manning's pass looked more like a desperate heave, a prayer, not a high-percentage choice -- except that it was Cruz waiting on the other end. And even though Manning admitted the ball was slightly underthrown, Cruz slowed down, out-positioned Dallas' Orlando Scandrik for the ball, then leaped to haul it in. Six plays later, the Giants kicked a field goal that pushed the lead back to 10. And they never wobbled again.
But of all the terrific things they did in this game -- from their defense sacking Tony Romo six times to their rushing attack starting to stir, from Manning again coming up big with 346 yards on 24-for-33 passing to Giants coach Tom Coughlin accepting well-deserved congratulations for keeping this banged-up team together -- the guy everyone kept talking about was Cruz.
Even he admits his story sounds "surreal." Who expects an undrafted wideout who grew up in Paterson, N.J., then persevered through a childhood that included enduring his father's suicide, to wind up as the Giants' most dangerous play-maker after a University of Massachusetts run that was interrupted for a year because he didn't apply himself enough to his classroom work, and then a rookie NFL season that was also interrupted, by injury?
Cruz did show a glimpse of this big-play ability last season in the Giants' preseason game against the Jets. But coming into this season, the Giants were still searching to replace possession receiver Steve Smith and Cruz was just hoping to keep a roster spot and then, after that, "Just make a real catch, in a real game that counted," he said.
He's done more than that this year. He finished third in the NFL with 1,536 yards receiving, trailing only Calvin Johnson (1,681) and Wes Welker (1569) though he began the year as a spot player. Cruz was voted a second alternate to the NFC Pro Bowl team, and Tuck said last night if he had his way, Cruz and Manning would be the Giants' "co-MVPs."
Cruz's 99-yard touchdown catch against the Jets a week ago was the spark that sent the Giants winging off to that must-win. The same was true of his 74-yard score Sunday against Dallas. Coughlin said the Giants were really just looking to pick up a first down on the play.
But Cruz, running a little out route toward the left sideline, caught the ball just beyond the line of scrimmage in full stride and turned upfield before Terence Newman, the Dallas cornerback trailing him, could catch up. Then Hakeem Nicks gave him a nice block and it was a footrace to the end zone.
"I saw the sideline wide open," Cruz said. "Then I was looking at myself on the ol' Jumbotron making sure they weren't too close."
Coughlin correctly called Cruz's touchdown the spark that got the Giants going.
But Cruz's 44-yard play was the dagger that sent the Cowboys falling.
Afterward, he enjoyed reliving all of it. When asked how he managed to outleap Scandrick on the play, Cruz shrugged and said something about being lucky to have some God-given ability. When needled about whether he really stands the 6-foot-1 he's listed at, Cruz smiled and said, "With my cleats on, I'm 6-foot-1. That's how I like to look at it. So yeah."
Asked now if he saw Cowboys receiver Laurent Robinson mock his salsa-inflected touchdown dance, Cruz laughed and delivered the sort of dig only a winner gets to say:
"Yeah, I saw him after the game and I told him if he wants to do my dance, he's gotta be a little more fluid, man," said Cruz. "He's got to take some classes, take some courses."
But seriously, Cruz was pressed, how was he able to make that fourth-quarter play at that moment. In that big a situation. On that pass from Manning that could've been better?
"I knew once it was in the air I just had to make a play on it," Cruz explained. "Our team needed it. We were down drastically, our momentum wasn't there. I was glad it was kind of the game-changer. ... Growing up here, I've seen the [Giants'] great run in 2007 and all the not-so-great runs."
Now the non-playoff seasons are over. By winning Sunday night, the 9-7 Giants avoided missing the playoffs for a fourth straight year.
And by the end of his six-catch, 178-yard night, nobody was seriously asking who the Giants' kid receiver was anymore.
Victor Cruz had an entire stadium shouting his last name.