EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — He didn't have the credentials of the other wide receivers on his New York Giants team or any of the long list of credentials that the much ballyhooed targets on their crosstown rivals, the Jets, could boast of. But second-year wide receiver Victor Cruz is now the toast of New York, and Giants fans are liking it spicy hot, especially after a 31-14 win over the Dallas Cowboys sent the Giants into the playoffs.
Out of the four wide receivers on the Giants' two deep, including Hakeem Knicks, Mario Manninghan and Ramses Barden, Cruz is the lowest player on the salary totem pole but is easily providing the most bang for the buck. On Sunday night it was a short pass from quarterback Eli Manning to Cruz that turned into a 74-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
On the play, Cruz split Terence Newman and Gerald Sensabaugh with his speed then went the rest of the field unmolested for the game's first touchdown. Born a stone's throw away from MetLife Stadium in the blue-collar town of Paterson, N.J., the Giants' improbable run to the playoffs has seen them win three of their last four games to win the NFC East.
"It's amazing, growing up here you've seen the great run in 2007 and all the not-so-great runs. Just being a part of this history, a part of this program is amazing to me," Cruz said. "To make the playoffs is an exciting feeling, I'm just glad to be a part of it."
The $450,000 Cruz, who is set to make $490,000 next season, was an undrafted free agent last year who impressed in preseason but played sparingly last season. In three games, he failed to register a catch, and a hamstring injury last year before Week 4 shelved him for the remainder of the season.
Now, Cruz is scintillating and his big-play ability is leading a Giants renaissance for a team that is 9-7 and playoff bound after capturing the division on Sunday night. He leads all Giants receivers in receptions, receiving yards, yards per catch and touchdowns. And if there was a "Scorched Turf" category, the speedster would lead the team in that category too.
"I guess it was just God-given ability. When I get the ball in my hands, I try to make the most out of every play, I try to make the maximum yardage I can get every time I touch the ball," Cruz said. "God has blessed me with some ability to do some good things — to jump and run and run some good routes."
His salsa dance in the end zone is now a fan favorite as Cruz calls his big-play ability being in the "right place at the right time" -- but it isn't the first time he's been in the perfect spot for his team.
Two weeks ago, it was Cruz who redeemed the Giants' season with a 99-yard touchdown reception in Week 16 against the Jets. On a field where he was easily overshadowed in prestige and in the bank account by the likes of the Jets' Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes, Cruz took a rather ordinary 10-yard pass from Manning and split Kyle Wilson and Antonio Cromartie before burning past Eric Smith for 89 yards after the catch and a Giants touchdown.
The irony is that the Jets scouted UMass last season and decided to use their second-round pick on Vlad Ducasse, a player who has just one NFL start to his name and is still a bit of a project, passing on Cruz. Now Cruz is passing — or rather speeding — by the 31 teams that had multiple chances to select him and the crosstown Jets with Holmes and Burress will be packing their bags for the offseason on Monday morning.
And as he rose to snare a 44-yard bomb from Manning midway through the fourth quarter and then followed that two plays later with a 20-yard catch over the middle, it was clear that the Giants were in Cruz control.
"A heck of a game," head coach Tom Coughlin said in the postgame press conference before stopping then smiling. "A heck of a season by the kid."
Follow Kristian R. Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer