In the 2011 season, the majority of Week 16’s games were played on a Saturday that happened to be Christmas Eve.
The Giants faced their stadium mates, the New York Jets, in their first game at MetLife Stadium. The Giants were 7-7 coming into Week 16 and fighting for a playoff spot after a two-year drought. The Jets were 8-6, also fighting for a postseason berth after consecutive appearances in the AFC Championship Game.
The Jets led 7-3 late with a little less than three minutes remaining in the second quarter. A T.J. Conley punt put the Giants at their own 1-yard line. Eli Manning tried to hit Ramses Barden on consecutive plays. Darrelle Revis defended the first attempt while the second just fell short.
On third-and-10, Manning hit Cruz around the 11-yard line. He avoided Kyle Wilson and Antonio Cromartie with a quick burst of speed before zipping down the sideline. The only Jet who had any chance of catching him was Eric Smith and he was 10 yards behind him.
Cruz spiked the ball and broke into his customary salsa dance. Giants fans in attendance screamed “CRUUUUUUUZ!” at the top of their lungs. He became the 13th player in NFL history with a 99-yard touchdown reception and second player to accomplish the feat that season (The New England Patriots’ Tom Brady connected with Wes Welker in Week 1).
Revis, one of the NFL’s best shutdown corners at the time, said he didn’t know who Cruz was leading up to the game. This certainly changed after he embarrassed the Jets defense.
“Backed up like that, you never think a play is going to happen like that where somebody takes it the distance 99 yards, we just have to be better,” Revis said. “There were some missed tackles, we just have to get the guy on the ground. We failed to do that and he went storming down the sidelines for 99 yards.”
Cruz is the most recent NFL player with a 99-yard touchdown reception. He finished the game with three receptions for 164 yards, breaking Amani Toomer’s franchise single-season record of 1,343 yards set in 2002.
“It’s crazy,” Cruz said of breaking Toomer’s record. “Just coming from where I’m from and coming through what I went through, it’s just been surreal for me. I’m just happy my teammates have been behind me and my coaches believed in me.”
Cruz had 82 receptions for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns in 2011.
The Giants won that Christmas Eve intra-stadium game 29-14. They finished the season with a 9-7 record and their most recent NFL East crown. Six weeks after the Jets game, they defeated the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI for their second Lombardi Trophy in four years. The Jets finished the ’11 season with an 8-8 record, the first year of a postseason drought that lasts to this day.
Rex Ryan, former Jets head coach and current ESPN analyst, was haunted by Cruz’s 99-yard touchdown reception. He acknowledged that the play put the Giants on the path to their latest Super Bowl victory.
“If you could point to a play that turned not just the game around, but maybe the season around, it was that play,” Ryan said in a 2015 Newsday interview. “The Giants came out a totally different team, and they carried it through. It changed their fortune, and it certainly changed ours with that play and that loss.”