- Ohm Youngmisuk, ESPN Staff Writer
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Victor Cruz tried to block it all out and focus in on every catch.
The New York Giants wide receiver wanted to put aside the excruciating pain of losing his grandmother, Lucy Molina, who passed away at 77 on Monday.
For one sun-splashed afternoon at MetLife Stadium, Cruz tried to not think about all the memories of his beloved abuela's delicious home cooking and all those afternoons spent after school learning how to dance from the best salsa instructor a grandson from Paterson, N.J., could have.
But then at perhaps the most critical juncture of a game that the defending Super Bowl champs had to have to avoid a disastrous 0-2 start, Cruz allowed himself to think about her.
With less than seven minutes left and in the midst of erasing a 14-point deficit, Eli Manning launched a bomb that went about 50 yards in the air for a streaking Cruz, who was all alone down the right sideline. As the ball fell into his hands, Cruz immediately saw no one in front of him and only Ronde Barber behind him.
And then he thought about his grandmother. First, Cruz thought he better do his patented salsa celebration -- which his grandmother took so much pride in -- with good form to make her proud. Then, Cruz blew a kiss and pointed his arms to the air and it felt as if nobody else was in MetLife Stadium at that moment but him and his abuela.
"Once I got to the 3 [yard line], I knew it was time to honor her and I knew she was with me," Cruz said. "And it was almost like the place kind of went silent and I was just there dancing with her. It was a good moment."
A little more than a week after dropping three passes against Dallas in the season opener, Cruz delivered a monster performance with 11 receptions for 179 yards, including his 80-yard touchdown.
Cruz's emotional week also inspired Hakeem Nicks. While one receiver was hurting inside, the Giants' other star receiver was hurting physically with a still-throbbing surgically-repaired right foot.
But playing in front of his own grandmother for the first time as a Giant, Nicks also delivered an unforgettable game with 10 catches for 199 yards and a touchdown. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the Giants are the first team to have two players with at least 10 catches and at least 175 yards receiving each in the same game.
Nicks was raised by Dorchina Urrutia in Harrisburg, Pa., from an early part of his life until he was 8. She had never seen her grandson play as a pro until Sunday, and what a game she picked as her first Giants game to attend.
"Honestly, that situation, it opened my eyes a little bit," Nicks said of Cruz's grandmother dying. "It let you know that you got to cherish those that you really love."
After a subpar outing by their standards against Dallas, Cruz and Nicks showed why they are in any discussion for the top receiving duo in the NFL.
Manning kept hitting Cruz on short passes as Cruz had nine catches for 94 yards in the first half alone. The two then saw something they could expose in the Tampa defense and it culminated with their 80-yard touchdown that helped turn a 27-13 deficit into a 27-27 tie, but really turned the momentum of the game in favor of the Giants with 6:48 remaining.
The Giants took the lead with 3:59 left when Manning hit Martellus Bennett for a 33-yard touchdown pass. But on that drive, Nicks inspired the team. He went down hard on an incomplete deep pass and had his right ankle stepped on in the process. Nicks was down for a while before jogging off the field. It was the same right foot on which he had surgery to repair a broken fifth metatarsal back in late May.
Two plays later, however, Nicks exploded down the middle and caught a 20-yard pass that helped set up the Bennett touchdown catch.
Josh Freeman and the Bucs responded with a touchdown drive of their own to even the game at 34-34 with 1:58 remaining.
But on the game-winning drive, Nicks caught a 50-yard pass down the right sideline that put the Giants at the Tampa Bay 11-yard line. Two plays later, Andre Brown scored a touchdown to give the Giants a dramatic comeback that saved Big Blue from what could have been a second straight damaging home loss.
"Hakeem probably played one of his best games I've ever seen," safety Antrel Rolle said. "Just his attitude -- I saw the hunger in his eyes before we even stepped out onto the field. He knew he had something in him today, he knew he was going to go out there and be dominant."
Before the game, Nicks and Cruz prayed together and Nicks told Cruz it would be a special game for him.
Cruz followed through and observers could see how emotional a game it was for him afterward. As he remembered his abuela in the postgame news conference, he appeared to get choked up a bit.
"I grew up with her in about the same household for about nine years," said Cruz, whose eyes watered up. "She basically took care of me for a large sum of the day before my mom got home. She was like my second mom. I basically was spoon-fed until I was 4 because she wouldn't let go.
"She was everything to me," he continued. "Everything from an inspirational person, emotionally and spiritually she would help me. She was just everything to me."
After the game, Nicks was walking through the hallway in front of the Giants locker room surrounded by reporters when Cruz shouted out at Nicks.
"Good game boy!" Cruz said to Nicks.
Nicks nodded, all the while carrying a well-deserved game ball.
"The game ball," Nicks said, "is for my grandmother."
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1dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo