Cruz brings breakout season to Foxboro

578456.jpg

Cruz brings breakout season to Foxboro

FOXBORO As an undrafted rookie in 2010 with the New York Giants, Victor Cruz was an absolute stud in the preseason, leading all receivers in just about every meaningful category in an otherwise non-meaningful portion of the season.

That success didn't immediately translate into playing time or big numbers for Cruz.

But it proved that he had the potential to make a major impact.

And that time is now.

The former UMass standout has been one of the NFL's unexpected surprises this season for a New York Giants team looking to do what no NFC team has been able to do since 2002 -- defeat the Patriots in Gillette Stadium.

The self-proclaimed elite quarterback for Giants, Eli Manning, will impact the game. Ditto for a Giants pass rush that has an NFL-best 26 sacks this season.

But the play of Cruz will certainly have a say in the game's outcome as well.

"He's an explosive guy, inside, outside," said Patriots cornerback Antwaun Molden. "He's gifted."

Safety Josh Barrett echoed similar sentiments about the 6-foot, 204-pound Cruz.

"He's a go-to target," Barrett said. "He's been steady, ever since the preseason. He's got good strength, able to get through tackles. And those big plays, they really stand out."

For Cruz, like most young players, consistency remains an issue.

One minute he's dazzling you with his athleticism and circus-like catches. The next, he's fumbling the ball away in a close game in the fourth quarter, as was the case in New York's Week 5 loss to Seattle.

But considering that he still has much to learn, and plenty of room to improve, the Giants are more than happy with what they've seen thus far.

He has 28 catches for 497 yards this season, which includes four touchdowns. His 17.8 yards per catch average ranks fourth among NFL players with 25 or more catches this season.

"Victor Cruz has made some big plays," said Giants coach Tom Coughlin. "He's been a young man who has tried to learn the game. I'd like to say he's a sponge."

That involves video study, to some degree.

For receivers preparing for the Patriots secondary, well here's what Cruz had to say about what he has seen thus far.

"They're going through a phase right now where they're having some trouble (defending the pass)," Cruz told reporters. "You know, looking at film we see some opportunity where we can take advantage of that and we're definitely excited to go out there and play."

Playing well is one thing.

But the one thing Cruz has done that typically flies under the radar in terms of a young receiver's development, is to gain the trust of the franchise quarterback.

The more you watch the Giants play, the more clear it becomes that Manning has no hesitation when it comes to looking for Cruz in a critical passing situation.

"He's made a lot of plays," Manning said. "He's a young guy who each week is learning the ins-and-outs of this offense and he has a natural playmaking ability. He's stepped up to make big plays in key situations."

And to think, not a single NFL team felt strongly enough about his play to draft him.

Rather than sulk, Cruz simply focused on maximizing whatever opportunity he would get in the NFL. And for most young players, that means treating preseason games and practices as if they're the biggest event ever.

To his credit, Cruz did just that.

And the results have him easily among the biggest surprises in the NFL as it nears the halfway point of the season.

As far as him not being drafted and overlooked, none of that matters now.

"He's been putting it on film all season," Barrett said. "You have to take it for what it is. He's been a playmaker, regardless of where he came from or his past. He's definitely a player we have to keep an eye on and try to limit as much as we can."

Quirky Super Bowl schedule this time around for Patriots

Quirky Super Bowl schedule this time around for Patriots

The Patriots schedule for the next few days in Massachusetts and Super Bowl Week in Houston is a little quirky.

Players are off on Tuesday (media has conference call access to Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia). There’s no media access on Wednesday at all as the team begins getting introduced to the Super Bowl game plan that will have been partially formulated (and subject to tweaking). The players are in Thursday, Friday and Saturday for afternoon practices and there’s media access to the players each day. There’s no media access on Sunday.

The team will fly to Houston on Monday and – in a major departure – will do its media duties at night. The NFL has repackaged media day as Super Bowl Opening Night. It will be held at Minute Maid Field (home of the Astros) with access to the Patriots from 10 to 11 p.m. EST.

Tuesday, there will be access from 1:30 to 2:30 EST to Belichick and a handful of players at the Patriots’ hotel. There will be full access to players and coaches on Wednesday and Thursday from 5 to 6:15 EST.

There’s no NFL-sponsored access of any kind on Friday or Saturday. Previously, there was a final press conference with the head coaches and a press conference with the NFL Commissioner. His name is Roger. Roger Goodell.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame committee meets on Saturday and will announce the 2017 inductees by the end of the day.

For those of you who like television - or who stream on your tiny devices – we’ll be all over this mess.

This week, look for Patriots Wednesday Live on Thursday at noon (hard to have Wednesday Live if ain’t nobody gonna be live from the team).

Mike Giardi and I will be down there Sunday so start looking for live reports and my giant nose in the great state of Texas at that point.

If we’re not live during media day in the evening, I don’t know what we’re doing with our lives. Quick Slants will be Tuesday night and Jerod Mayo will be down there.

Lotta podding planned. Lotta podding.

We’ll keep you updated.

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

Brady-Ryan marks rare case of NFL's top two quarterbacks meeting in Super Bowl

For all the flack that Matt Ryan got heading into this season, he’s been a damn good quarterback. Is his career on the same level as Tom Brady’s? Of course not, but this regular season saw him stand as Brady’s peer, making him an MVP favorite.

One of Ryan’s biggest challengers for that hardware is the same man who stands in the way of him winning his first Super Bowl. Though he missed the first four games of the season due to suspension, Brady finished second in the league in passing yards per game and threw just two picks in 12 games while tossing 28 touchdowns.  

So Super Bowl LI will pin the quarterback with the best numbers overall (Ryan finished two touchdowns behind Aaron Rodgers for the league lead but threw for 516 more yards and had a higher completion percentage) against the quarterback with the best touchdown/interception ratio ever for a single season. 

In other words, this is a Super Bowl that puts what one could argue are the season’s two best quarterbacks each other. That’s pretty rare. 

Going back the last 25 years, there are four candidates for such meetings: Manning vs. Brees in Super Bowl XLIV, Favre and Elway in Super Bowl XXXII (this one is a stretch), Favre and Bledsoe in Super Bowl XXXI and Kelly and Rypien in Super Bowl XXVI.. 

Why haven’t the two best quarterbacks squared off in the Super Bowl more often? Because Brady and Peyton Manning played their entire careers in the same conference, silly. It’s taken other players entering their echelon to even set up such a scenario, and that’s why Brees’ Saints beating Manning’s Colts serves as the only example during Manning or Brady’s career. 

The strong performances of those who dominated the regular season have often carried over into their Super Bowl meetings, but not always. Drew Bledsoe and Jim Kelly (both throwing two touchdowns and four picks in Super Bowl losses) are examples of the wheels falling off in the final game. 

Here’s a breakdown of past occurrences. Note that all four of them saw the winning team score at least 30 points, something the Pats have done just once in Brady's four Super Bowl wins: 

Super Bowl XLIV: Brees vs. Manning

Brees led NFL with 34 touchdowns in regular season; Manning finished tied for second with 33

Final score: Saints 31, Colts 17

Brees: 32/39, 288 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Manning: 31/45, 333 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT

Brees completed a postseason in which he had no turnovers and did so in a nearly exactly average game for him that season, as e averaged 292.5 yards, 2.26 touchdowns and less than one interception per game in the regular season. The two quarterbacks also combined for just one sack. 
 
Super Bowl XXXII: Favre vs. Elway

Favre led NFL with 35 TDs in regular season, Elway finished second in TD/interception ratio

Final score: Broncos 31, Packers 24

Favre: 25/42, 256 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, fumble lost 
Elway: 12/22, 123 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT

Again, this is the forced one because Jeff George (3,917 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, nine interceptions) had the better regular season than Elway (3,635 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, 11 picks). Elway may have been the winning quarterback, but he didn’t have anything to do with the win. Terrell Davis carried the Broncos, playing through a migraine and rushing for 157 yards with three touchdowns en route to Super Bowl MVP honors. 

Super Bowl XXXI: Favre vs. Bledsoe

Favre led NFL with 39 TDs, Bledsoe third with 27

Final Score: Packers 35, Patriots 21

Favre: 14/27, 246 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Bledsoe: 25/48, 253 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT

Both quarterbacks took five sacks in this game. For Bledsoe, it was the most he took all season. The game was the third four-pick performance of his NFL career. 

Super Bowl XXVI: Kelly vs. Rypien

Kelly led NFL with 33 TDs, Rypien second with 28

Final score: Redskins 37, Bills 24

Rypien: 18/33, 292 yards, 2 TD, INT
Kelly: 28/58, 275 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT, fumble lost

Turns out five turnovers (and being sacked four times) is not a recipe for winning the Super Bowl. Kelly’s 58 passes thrown set a Super Bowl record.