INDIANAPOLIS – Eli Manning has a 1-2-3 punch at receiver that’s not only dynamic, but also highly entertaining.
Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham give the Giants a pass-catching trio rivaling any in the NFL, and it could be New York’s biggest advantage on offense against the New England Patriots in Sunday’s Super Bowl.
Cruz is coming off a record-setting season, Nicks had another 1,000-yard season and Manningham is finally healthy after dealing with a knee injury much of the year.
For the inconsistent Patriots defense, which ranked 31st against the pass, that’s one big headache.
“Once you look at it and see they have a receiver over there and a bunch of different things, you understand that’s an area we can excel,” Cruz said at media day Tuesday, referring to the Patriots receiver Julian Edelman, who plays nickel back at times. “We don’t want to force it. We want it to happen naturally and take it play by play and we’ll see how it goes and how they come out and play us and we’ll adjust accordingly.”
The Giants (12-7) have adjusted well this season. Starting with a revamped offensive line, New York quickly discovered that the running game, which carried the team for decades, wasn’t as good as usual.
Four yards and a cloud of dust turned into 2 or 3 yards, and that didn’t add up to a first down. Something had to change, and offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride opted to unleash Eli and his receivers.
“It’s never bothered me to throw the ball,” Gilbride said. “I have always enjoyed the challenge of being able to come up with some plays that would give our guys a chance and put them in position to be successful. I think we have the talent level to do that and it seemed foolish to keep banging our head against the wall when we weren’t having success . … So it was not by design but necessity we evolved into more of a passing team.”
The numbers have been sensational.
Manning threw for a franchise record 4,933 yards, 29 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Cruz caught 82 passes and set a franchise-record with 1,536 yards receiving and nine touchdowns, including at least five of 68 yards or longer. Nicks had 76 catches for 1,192 yards and seven TDs despite missing a game; Manningham had 39 catches for 523 yards and four TDs in 13 games.
And if that’s not enough, the Giants found a pass-catching tight end this season in Jake Ballard, who had 38 receptions for 604 yards and four TDs.
“I feel it starts with us as an offense,” Manningham said. “We know how good we are. We know how we can go out and make plays and we know our potential. We’re trying to play the fullest out there. Usually when we go out there and play good, we win.”
What has been so amazing about the receivers is their ability to turn short passes into big gains.
The Giants’ five-game winning streak that carried them to the Super Bowl is dotted with game-breaking plays by the receivers.
In the Giants’ 29-14 win over the Jets in the next to last game of the regular season, Cruz used his speed to turn a 10-yard, third-down pass into an NFL record-tying 99-yard touchdown catch and run that ended with his usual salsa routine in the end zone.
A week later, in the 31-14 NFC-title-clinching victory over Dallas, Cruz ignited the team with a 74-yard catch and run for a score late in the first quarter of a scoreless game.
Nicks took over in the playoffs, scoring four TDs in the wins over Atlanta and Green Bay. The big plays were a 72-yard catch and run against the Falcons in a 24-2 win and a 37-yard desperation pass before halftime against Green Bay in a 37-20 upset of the defending Super Bowl champions.
Manningham caught a 17-yard touchdown in the 20-17 overtime win against San Francisco in the NFC championship game on a play that Gilbride and Manning drew up on the sideline to counter something they saw in the Niners’ defense.
“I feel like as a group we like to make plays, we like to get the job done,” Nicks said. “It comes from us working hard; getting in that time with Eli. We put in a lot of time off the field and on the field to get the job done.”
If the Patriots are going to win, they need to find a way to limit Manning and the receivers.
Cornerback Devin McCourty said the Patriots can’t let the Giants’ get their running game going, either.
“If you worry about the run too much they have three guys with a great quarterback that can get down the field, throw it short, break tackles, and take it the distance,” he said.
The Giants’ receiving corps is different than the group that Manning had against New England in the 2008 Super Bowl.
Amani Toomer has retired. Plaxico Burress is with the Jets after serving a nearly two years in jail on a gun charge, and Steve Smith signed with Philadelphia as a free agent.
Cruz, Nicks and Manningham are pretty good replacements.
“If guys are double-teamed or they’re covered; I have to have faith in each one of those guys to get open and make some big plays for us,” Manning said.