Giants are catching on
NY's receivers looking to end Packers' reign
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Three days before the biggest game of his life, Victor Cruz wasn’t discussing either the Green Bay Packers’ secondary or the New York Giants’ chances against the defending Super Bowl Champions Sunday in the NFC divisional round.
There would be time for that.
Cruz instead was answering questions about being a dad for the first time, how much sleep was he getting, and spending his first night at home with his daughter, Kennedy.
In some senses, the scene was remarkable. A year ago, no one would have cared about Cruz and his family. He missed most of the season with a hamstring injury after making the roster as a free agent.
People can’t get enough of him now after a year that saw him set a team single-season record for yards receiving (1,536), while being named second-team All-Pro.
“My life has changed a lot,’’ Cruz said. “Definitely a year ago no one would have thought my baby would be a topic of interest, or let along knowing I would have a baby. It’s been a blessing. It’s been a great ride for me, but we still have some goals ahead that we have to reach and those are still intact.’’
Goal No. 1 is ending the Packers’ reign as NFL champions.
The Giants (10-7) have a shot at top-seeded Green Bay (15-1) in large part because they might be able to match Aaron Rodgers and the high-scoring Packers point for point.
Credit for that goes to Eli Manning and his receiving corps which has emerged as one of the NFL’s elite.
The Packers have an outstanding one, too, with Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver and tight end Jermichael Finley. They combined for 227 catches for 3,424 yards and, 38 touchdowns.
The Giants’ group of Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham and tight end Jake Ballard had 235 catches for 3,855 yards and 24 touchdowns.
“We are a dangerous corps,’’ said Nicks, who had 76 catches for 1,192 yards and seven scores. “I feel like we’re all No. 1 receivers. With our offense, if you try to take one guy away, it opens it up for the other two guys. You try to take two guys away, it opens it up for the third receiver and the tight end as well.’’
What makes the Giants’ statistics interesting is that they produced in a season in which New York’s running game was ranked last in the league, averaging less than 90 yards.
In their 24-2 victory over Atlanta in the NFC wild-card game last weekend, the Giants’ running game finally broke out and ran for 172 yards.
“If we can establish the run game, that makes everything a lot easier,’’ Manning said. “You get in better down-and-distance, you start to dominate the line of scrimmage, it slows down the pass rush. It does all of those things. The last time we played them, they liked to play a lot of two-high safeties. It’s tough to throw against that look. If you can bring their safeties down, then we can get some better looks to throw it.’’
Manning didn’t do too bad against the Packers in the 38-35 loss on Dec. 4 with a running game. He hit 23 of 40 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns. He also threw an interception that Clay Matthews returned for a score.
Cruz and Nicks both had big games, despite Manningham being sidelined with a knee injury. The 25-year-old Cruz, who seemingly has sparked an interest in salsa dancing with his touchdown celebrations, had seven catches for 119 yards. Nicks also had seven receptions for 88 and two touchdowns.
Manningham was in the lineup last weekend and he added another threat, catching a 27-yard touchdown pass to seal the win over Atlanta.
“I hope they forgot about me,’’ Manningham said. “I like not being under the microscope.’’
Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride didn’t want to compare the receivers in the game. He likes his guys.
“I think they’re looking forward to the challenge of not only beating the Packers, but also proving that they’re in the same class as the Packers receivers that everybody acknowledges as a special group,’’ Gilbride said. “I think the thing that we’re probably the most proud of is just the growth that’s taken place, particularly with Victor obviously, but also with Jake Ballard, whom I know you’re not including.
“But to me, he’s an integral part of our passing game as well.’
Ironically, the last time the Giants played the Packers, backup tight end Travis Beckum opened the scoring with a 67-yard catch and run for a touchdown during which he cut back against the grain three times in the final 30 yards.
Gilbride knows the Packers, who were missing their two inside linebackers in the last game, will tweak some things on defense. His goal will be to anticipate the changes and make adjustments on the fly when they do something else.
For Cruz, Nicks, Manningham, Ballard and Manning, they need to make plays on Sunday.
Until then, all they can do is get ready.