The pivotal play from last season sent the Giants streaking into immortality, and left the Jets sputtering in disarray.
How exactly can a single play change the course of not one, but two teams’ seasons?
Momentum, the NFL’s rarest commodity, proves tricky to forge into a sword; sometimes the smallest moments of any given game can jolt a team into a season-lasting frenzy, or nail a coffin permanently shut.
Tom Coughlin’s Giants, who rode the momentum generated by Cruz’s TD catch six games to win a Super Bowl, know that momentum can even be generated from losses: They were able to turn a late-season loss to the undefeated New England Patriots in 2007 into a most unlikely victorious Super Bowl run.
And on Christmas Eve 2011, the Giants needed momentum badly. Plagued all season by inconsistency and bothered all week by the proclamations of superiority from Jets players and staff, the Giants were in a desperate situation.
Down 7-3 with the first half almost entirely in the books, Eli Manning and company were backed up at their own one-yard line, facing a third-and-ten. Manning aimed a short pass at Cruz, who was running a simple 10-yard out pattern in hopes of just giving the G-men a little breathing room to punt.
But Cruz is dangerous when he has the ball in his hands, and a quick juke resulted in two missed tackles and an untouched bolt down the sideline.
The Giants took the 10-7 lead into halftime and never looked back. It’s amazing how ferociously a defense can play when the team’s offensive playmakers consistently prove that they can score from anywhere on the field, at any time.
Had the outcome of the battle for New York been different, the Jets would have entered the final week of the season in control of their own destiny, only needing to beat a last-place division opponent to claim the final Wild Card spot—and likely face the Houston Texans in the first round of the playoffs.
The Giants, on the other hand, would have fallen to 7-8; and Dallas would have won the division by way of tiebreaker, at the very least. It would have been an all too familiar late season collapse of their own, and talk of Tom Coughlin’s Hall of Fame resume may have morphed into talk of his actual resume.
Many in New York would have cited a four-game losing streak, a 29th-ranked pass defense, and a 32nd-ranked rushing offense as reasons to fire the head coach.
But Antonio Cromartie couldn’t lasso Victor Cruz.
The Jets, having been dethroned as self-proclaimed kings of New York, sat at a pedestrian 8-7.
Rex Ryan's team put themselves in a position where they needed a win at Miami in Week 17, combined with outside help. But in a 19-17 loss, Mark Sanchez threw three interceptions, and team captain Santonio Holmes was benched at the request of his own teammates for throwing tantrums in the huddle. The Jets, finishing at 8-8, failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
The Giants, on the other hand, turned Week 17 into a division-clinching performance against the Dallas Cowboys. Again Cruz set the tone early, this time outrunning the defense after catching a short pass for a 74-yard touchdown to take the lead. They stormed into the playoffs beating the Falcons, Packers, 49ers and Patriots on the way to their second Super Bowl win in five years—aided greatly by their their running game and defense, which had been suddenly resurrected in week 16.
Meanwhile, the Jets spent January trying to reconcile squabbling their way through a late-season collapse. Holmes’ meltdown in Miami was a culmination of something that had been festering throughout the season.
Coach Rex Ryan took the blame for the debacle, and went to work in the offseason on his own attitude and the attitude of the players, taking a hands-on approach and encouraging maligned quarterback Mark Sanchez and Holmes to put their differences behind them.
Of course, the way the Jets' front office runs their offseason show, it has been difficult for fans to dwell on the past. Woody Johnson’s three-ring circus of shenanigans attracts plenty of attention on its own.
The Giants, on the other hand, have had a particularly quiet offseason and training camp. In many ways, Tom Coughlin is the exact opposite of Rex Ryan. Reserved and suspicious of brash talk, Coughlin’s unofficial motto is “talk is cheap, play the game.” On the other hand, Rex Ryan remains insistent that his brash confidence isn’t a problem.
The fates, attitudes and coaches of both teams have been polarized since Cruz’s 99-yard scamper last December. And while the game this Saturday means little, even for a preseason game, the Jets will be playing with a chip on their shoulder: The play that saved the Giants' season has undoubtedly haunted them since Christmas.