FOXBOROUGH - Victor Cruz, the Giants’ speedy second-year receiver via the University of Massachusetts, yesterday continued his ascent as a target trusted by quarterback Eli Manning and respected by those charged with covering him.
During the Giants’ 24-20 victory at Gillette Stadium - one that concluded with more than a few eerie similarities to the last time the two franchises met during Super Bowl XLII four years ago in Glendale, Ariz. - Cruz led the visitors in receptions (6), receiving yards (91), and targets (11).
But Cruz’s most crucial contribution came on a pivotal play when he was targeted but didn’t make the catch.
After Tom Brady’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Rob Gronkowski on fourth down gave the Patriots a 20-17 lead, the Giants took possession at their 20 with 1 minute 36 seconds remaining. Manning completed the first play of the drive to Cruz for 19 yards, but consecutive throws in his direction fell incomplete. Facing third and 10 at their 39, Manning then hit Jake Ballard down the middle for 28 yards.
Two plays later, the Giants were on the New England 21 with 35 seconds remaining when Manning lofted a deep pass down the left seam toward Cruz. Before the ball could arrive, Patriots safety Sergio Brown crashed into the receiver, and the official didn’t hesitate.
Pass interference. First and 10 at the Patriots 1. Penalties don’t get much more damaging.
“Eli switched it up, switched up the call, changed it at the line,’’ said Cruz. “I went up the seam. I was trying to make the play and jumped up and the defender [collided] with me early. As soon as I looked at the ref, he was already in mid-throw. I was excited, as you probably could tell.’’
The Giants were even more excited two plays later. When Manning hit Ballard for the winning 1-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds remaining, it set off a celebration in the end zone that led to a brief skirmish between the teams.
“I think we got a little carried away,’’ said Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck. “But this was a big win. It brings back memories.’’
Which memories does it bring back?
“You all know,’’ Tuck said, smiling.
He’s right. It was impossible not to know. The final drive jogged memories of Super Bowl XLII - particularly Manning’s lofted pass to Ballard to the left side of the end zone for the winning score, which for New England fans was all too reminiscent of his championship-clinching throw to Plaxico Burress to ruin the 2007 Patriots’ hopes for a perfect season.
It also ended a couple of meaningful milestones for the home team. The Patriots have now lost two games in a row for the first time since Games 11 and 12 during the 2009 season.
“To beat one of the elite teams in the league like the Patriots on their home field, with them coming off a loss, that’s big,’’ said Tuck, who was part of a defense that held the Patriots scoreless in the first half, the first time that has been done to them since Dec. 10, 2006.
“To do what we did today - obviously, we’re not going to stop them, but to slow them down and to make Tom, up at the line of scrimmage, look like he was a little bit uncomfortable with his reads, that’s when you know you’re giving him some things that maybe he didn’t see before.’’
One more streak stopped by the Giants: The Patriots’ regular-season home winning streak was halted at 20 games.
Cruz, the kid from UMass who had so much to do with the visitors’ victory, felt right at home. While Amherst is no short trip from Foxborough, there were noticeable cheers of “Cruuuuuuuuuz’’ after each of his receptions.
“I heard them every time,’’ said Cruz. “Some of the fans must have trickled over from school. But it’s great to go to different places and get some of that love. I know there are a lot of Giants fans in New England. There are Giants fans everywhere. It was definitely one of those games you’ll remember for a while. I’m just glad to be on the winning end of it.’’Chad Finn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.