EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The way things are going for Victor Cruz, job security isn't going to be a problem, even if this football gig doesn't last long.
Based on all the hands Cruz was shaking after he led the New York Giants into the playoffs, he could probably run for mayor of Paterson, his nearby hometown, and win in a landslide. Sorry, Jeffery Jones. You might be doing a great job in the Silk City, but Cruz is one serious hero right now. This isn't a "hometown guy makes good" tale. It's more like, "hometown guy makes meteoric."
Over the past two games, Cruz has gone from an intriguing story about an undrafted guy who became a good player for his boyhood team to the guy who practically saved New York's season. Last week against the Jets, Cruz fueled a comeback win with an NFL record-tying 99-yard touchdown catch. Against the archrival Dallas Cowboys in a game for the NFC East title, Cruz's six catches for 178 yards and a touchdown allowed the Giants to ease their way into the playoffs with a convincing 31-14 victory at MetLife Stadium. Cruz didn't just build up a bunch of stats at the end of this pass-crazed NFL season. He came up with the game's most critical plays, showing off a combination of speed and strength that opened the door to victory and closed it just as Dallas tried to make a game of it in the fourth quarter.
[ Playoff: AFC/NFC seeds and matchups ]
The speed showed up in the first quarter when Cruz turned a short pass into a 74-yard touchdown. On third-and-1, all the Giants wanted to do was get a quick pass to Cruz for 6 yards or so. Instead, Cruz got open against Dallas cornerback Terance Newman, kept running across the face of the defense, got a block from fellow receiver Hakeem Nicks, turned up the sideline and ran the remaining distance, pulling away from Newman and safety Gerald Sensabaugh in the process.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin described himself as "doing cartwheels on the sidelines as he is running by," an act for which Coughlin likely fined himself. Regardless, that play sparked the Giants to a 21-0 lead at halftime. When Dallas closed to within 21-14 in the fourth quarter – complete with Cowboys receiver Laurent Robinson mocking Cruz's salsa touchdown dance – it was again time for Cruz to catch a couple of throws from Eli Manning.
"Yeah, I saw him do that," Cruz said with a chuckle, referring to Robinson's move. "I told him he had to smooth that out, make it more fluid. He has to work on that, take some classes."
It was Cruz who then took the rest of the Cowboys to school. On a critical third-and-7 play from the Giants' 28-yard line, Manning spun away from pressure and heaved the ball down field. The play was slightly reminiscent of Manning's throw to David Tyree in the Super Bowl in 2008.
Cruz didn't make this play quite as harrowing, using his helmet to help secure the ball. Instead, he showed off his muscle and he got position against Dallas cornerback Orlando Scandrick and then out-jumped him for the ball.
"God has just blessed me with some talents," said Cruz, who was signed in 2010 out of noted football factory UMass. Last season, he didn't have a single catch and his most noteworthy plays were a couple drops against Philadelphia. For this season, his goals were pretty grounded.
"I just wanted to make a meaningful catch in a meaningful game," he said.
Cruz is so far beyond that it's ridiculous. He finished the regular season with 82 catches for 1,526 yards and nine touchdowns. His 342 yards and two scores over the past two weeks saved a season. The Giants had been 6-2 at one point, lost four straight and five of the next seven to fall to 8-7 coming into this game.
That's when Cruz decided to become a more humble version of what the Philadelphia Eagles' DeSean Jackson is supposed to be. By the time it was done on Sunday, Cruz was shaking hands with Giants fans along the sideline, remembering how not long ago he used to be one of them. It wasn't long ago that he was cheering for Tyree and Manning from his dorm room while in college in Amherst, Mass.
"To be in this position, it's like surreal," Cruz said. "This is the stuff you always dream of and now you get to do it. Wow, just wow."
Here are the winners and losers for Week 17:
• We'll get this out of the way right now: Congratulations to Drew Brees, who had his third game with five-touchdown passes this season and improved his streak of games with a TD pass to 43 (he's four short of Johnny Unitas' record) to put a regular-season cap on his record-setting campaign. Likewise, congrats to Saints running back Darren Sproles for setting the all-purpose yardage record and to New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham, who was the first to break Kellen Winslow Sr.'s all-time yardage record for tight ends (surpassed minutes later by the New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski). Likewise, congrats to Tom Brady for topping the 5,000 yards passing and to Gronkowski, for finishing the game with both the tight end yardage and touchdown marks. All of that said, there is something hollow about all the marks. The Saints didn't need to leave Graham in the game just to generate numbers. Likewise, the Patriots, while running up the score against the Buffalo Bills, left Gronkowski in the game to get him some additional yardage and the records. For two teams that are going into the playoffs, the risk of getting either guy hurt in a meaningless situation should have been enough for both to reconsider. That's particularly true for New England, which should have remembered when it lost Wes Welker just before the playoffs in the 2009 season.
• Quarterback Matt Flynn and the Green Bay Packers were triple winners on Sunday. First, Green Bay won the game, which was significant considering that it rested quarterback Aaron Rodgers and some other players. Second, Flynn, who is expected to be an unrestricted free agent, probably made himself about $20 million guaranteed by completing 31 of 44 passes for 480 yards, six touchdowns and one interception against the Detroit Lions. That included the game-winning touchdown pass with 1:10 remaining. The third, and most interesting part, is whether the Packers might try something of a gambit with Flynn by declaring him a franchise player this offseason in order to trade him. It's highly doubtful and risky, but the Patriots did the same thing with Matt Cassel in 2009 and were able to trade him. Then again, the Patriots did it quickly. Flynn, a former seventh-round pick, has a lot of fans around the NFL among coaches and personnel people. However, he had thrown only 88 passes in four years before Sunday. He had an impressive game against New England last season when Rodgers was out with a concussion. This game, however, was a money maker.
• On the subject of quarterbacks, the St. Louis Rams may have missed out on a chance to get draft prospect Andrew Luck when the Indianapolis Colts lost and locked up the No. 1 overall pick. Of course, the Rams likely would have traded the pick. On Sunday, even before they played, the Rams got a bit of a break when reports surfaced that Baylor quarterback and Heisman Trophy-winner Robert Griffin III has decided to enter the NFL draft. Griffin's performance this season not only elevated him past Luck for the Heisman, it could easily make him the next most coveted quarterback in the 2012 NFL draft. If that's the case, look for the Rams to peddle the No. 2 overall pick to the likes of Washington, Miami or any other potential suitor.
• Congratulations to Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor on a great 15-year career. Taylor announced his retirement earlier in the week and finished with aplomb. Although he had only one tackle against the New York Jets, he had a key play in the fourth quarter when he put pressure on Mark Sanchez to help force one of Sanchez's three interceptions. Later, Taylor had a fumble return for a score overruled upon review (the ball-carrier was down before the fumble). So ended a career that will likely get Taylor into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Taylor finished with 139½ sacks, but the real key, as Hall of Fame voter Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News pointed out, is that Taylor forced 47 fumbles, intercepted eight passes, scored nine touchdowns and had three safeties. Those secondary stats are crucial to Taylor's candidacy, although he may not get in the first time he's eligible. Sadly, he ends his career without much in the way of playoff success (one appearance in an AFC title game as a Jet last season).
• Talk about great comebacks, New Orleans kicker John Kasay gets credit for one of the all-timers. After last season, Kasay retired from the Carolina Panthers. An injury to Garrett Hartley in the preseason forced the Saints to call Kasay, who ended up with a career-record 147 points, eclipsing the 145 he scored in the 1996 season. Pretty nice for a bonus 20th season.
• New England coordinator Bill O'Brien figures to become the latest New England offensive coach to ride the coattails of Tom Brady and get a head coaching job. Like Charlie Weis and Josh McDaniels before him, O'Brien is rumored to be in line for a top job. This time, the opportunity appears to be as the head coach at Penn State.
• Nice work by Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, who had 3½ sacks in an otherwise meaningless game against Chicago. In the process, Allen finished with 22 for the season, a half sack short of Michael Strahan's NFL record. Guys who play hard all the time like Allen deserve to have good things happen.
[ Related: Jared Allen feels like 'runner-up at the prom' ]
• For anyone who was vacillating between whether Mark Sanchez or Brian Schottenheimer is the problem for the Jets, the problem is clearly Sanchez after his putrid performance against Miami on Sunday. The performance by Sanchez ranks among the worst you'll see by a quarterback. It wasn't just the stats. His three interceptions were not historic. Rather, it was the quality of the picks. Two of them were intercepted by lineman Randy Starks, who became the first defensive lineman to pick off a pair since Pittsburgh's Dwight White on Oct. 23, 1977 (according to research by the Elias Sports Bureau on behalf of the NFL). On both, Sanchez lobbed a pair of half-hearted check downs. The third pass was another sloppy toss across the middle that was at least five feet short over where it needed to be. On top of that, Sanchez was off target on the simplest of throws, such as a back-shoulder attempt to Plaxico Burress in the second half that Burress had no chance of catching. Sanchez didn't just fail to progress this season, he regressed. At a time when so many passers were playing so well, Sanchez was a colossal flop. People will point to schematic problems or blame Schottenheimer for not being able to motivate Sanchez, but there's a point at which the player has to take responsibility. The Jets are long past that with Sanchez. At one point during the loss to the Dolphins, CBS analyst Dan Dierdorf said that Sanchez needed to "work on throws from the numbers to the sideline." For people who don't understand exactly what that means, basically defenses were loading defenders in the middle of the field and daring Sanchez to either throw outside or underneath. Sanchez threw underneath consistently, one of the reasons he averaged a paltry 6.4 yards per pass attempt this season. The league average was 7.2 yards per attempt.
• While on the subject of the Jets, wide receiver Santonio Holmes gets a giant thumbs down for his effort in the season finale. Holmes got benched in the second half against Miami for his lack of effort. Not exactly what you're expecting from a team captain and the guy whom the Jets decided to pay when debating between Holmes and Braylon Edwards. The problem with Holmes, who is a good player when his head is right, is that his emotions run the gamut of the team. When a team is playing well, Holmes is fine. When a team is playing poorly, Holmes is a mess.
[ Related: Santonio Holmes 'quit' on Jets, benched ]
• Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow continued his free fall with perhaps his worst effort of the season, completing six of 22 passes for 60 yards and one interception in a 7-3 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. The worst part about this performance is that it wasn't a lopsided score that got out of hand because Tebow was outside his comfort zone. This was a made-for-Tebow game in which Tebow couldn't come up with big plays. The Broncos still made the playoffs when Oakland lost, but it's hard to see this team doing anything in the postseason with Pittsburgh coming to town for the first round. In fact, this is going to be downright ugly if the Steelers are on their game. During Denver's three-game losing streak, Tebow has completed 30 of 73 passes for 439 yards, four interceptions and two touchdowns. He has been sacked 10 times.
• The Oakland Raiders … what can you say about a team that butchered such a golden opportunity. Yeah, Oakland had its share of injuries, from quarterback Jason Campbell to running back Darren McFadden. However, if you have Carson Palmer and a bunch of talented people like Richard Seymour and Stanford Routt, this team should have won the AFC West in a season when it took only an 8-8 record. Brutal. Worse, if you're Palmer, think about the fact that the team you led failed to make the playoffs while your old team, the Bengals, made it. Yikes.
• Over the past three games, the New England defense in the first quarter or half has been awful. On Sunday, the Patriots made Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick look like some combination of Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees in the first quarter. Fitzpatrick completed 13 of 16 passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns as the Bills built a 21-0 lead. In the past four games, New England has allowed 74 points in the first half. In the second half, they have allowed 21 combined. This is what leads an analyst such as Troy Aikman of Fox to say (during the New Orleans-Carolina broadcast): "New England is the worst defense I have ever seen from a playoff team" and "I'm still amazed that New England could come away with the No. 1 seed [in the AFC]."
• Speaking of Buffalo, what is there to say about wide receiver Stevie Johnson? Yeah, what he wrote on the T-shirt was harmless. But enough is enough when you start picking up penalty after penalty that harms your team. As much as it hurt the Bills for coach Chan Gailey to have to pull Johnson, it's something Gailey had to do. I'm sure there are people in Baltimore who aren't happy about that since it cost the Ravens a chance at the No. 1 seed.
(FIVE THINGS I LOVED AND FIVE THINGS I LOATHED)
Loved: The 15-yard touchdown catch by New Orleans wide receiver Marques Colston in the first quarter to give the Saints a 14-7 lead. This was a prototype Drew Brees-to-Colston play as Brees threw the ball to Colston's back shoulder into the defense's open spot. From there, Colston adjusted, jumped and snatched the ball, all seemingly in one motion. This symbolizes the magnificence of these two.
Loathed: As much as I love to watch Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith play because he wears his intensity on his sleeve, there comes a point where it's too much. The constant screaming at everybody is silly. He's a great player, but when he gets to the point that he's yelling in the face of New Orleans coach Sean Payton – as was the case following one of Smith's grabs – he has crossed the line of decorum. Then again, Smith has crossed it plenty of times in the past.
Loved: The way Carolina quarterback Cam Newton shucked off New Orleans defensive end Cameron Jordan on a pass rush in the first quarter. Newton didn't even seem concerned about Jordan, who made the mistake of trying to push Newton over instead of trying to tackle him. That's going to earn Jordan a healthy fine from his teammates in kangaroo court when they watch film. And when defensive coordinator Gregg Williams sees it, Jordan will get an earful.
Loathed: The body language and facial expressions from Jets coach Rex Ryan throughout the first half of the game at Miami. Yeah, this has been a rough stretch. The Jets squandered a playoff opportunity and a shot to beat the Giants in a meaningful game that could have raised the Jets' popularity over their cross-town foe. The interesting question is whether this season is going to put a serious ding in the bravado of the uber-confident Ryan. If he doesn't declare that the Jets are the favorites for the Super Bowl next season by the end of February, you know something is wrong.
Loved: That San Francisco wide receiver Michael Crabtree thought better of celebrating at the end of his 28-yard touchdown and instead tucked the ball away at the end of the score to make sure he didn't fumble. Crabtree had a moment where he wanted to unleash with a little "Prime Time" move, but wisely reconsidered in a game that had a lot of importance to the 49ers in terms of seeding.
Loathed: To follow up on the general lethargy of Ryan, the Jets' offense wasn't a whole lot better. If the New York offensive players have any desire to keep Brian Schottenheimer as the offensive coordinator, they were hiding it well. Between four false starts on one drive by starting tackles Wayne Hunter and D'Brickashaw Ferguson and tight end Matthew Mulligan, an unnecessary timeout with 5:23 remaining in the first half, the inaccuracy of Mark Sanchez on simple throws and Santonio Holmes getting benched during the last drive, the Jets players are begging for an overhaul.
Loved: That Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew finished the season with a career-high 1,606 yards rushing after getting 169 against Indianapolis. Jones-Drew also had 374 yards receiving to finish with 1,980 yards combined. Pretty good stuff from a guy who some people thought was on the decline before this season because of a knee problem.
Loathed: The fact that Washington quarterback Rex Grossman finished the season by throwing an interception in 12 consecutive games. That's every game Grossman played this season after the season-opener against the Giants. The only respite Grossman got in that streak was when he was benched in favor of John Beck, who was so bad that the Redskins had to go back to Grossman. While this can be read as an indictment of Grossman, it's really about coach Mike Shanahan, who voluntarily entered this season with Grossman and Beck as his quarterbacks.
Loved: Watching Ravens QB Joe Flacco come up big in the first half as Baltimore, which has repeatedly looked flat on the road this season, played well at a time it needed to win. Flacco has been the most inconsistent playoff-bound quarterback who opened the season as the starter.
Loathed: Seeing Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher have to leave the season finale with an apparent knee injury … and a scary one at that. Urlacher's knee was bent sideways as he fell to the ground and a teammate fell on him. The good news is that Urlacher was able to walk off the field after the knee was wrapped in ice. That's no guarantee it's not serious (people who tear ACLs often can walk off the field), but it's better than the alternative.
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