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Despite losing wideout Steve Smith and tight end Kevin Boss to free agency, Manning has been able to quickly build chemistry with his young receivers, thanks in large part to his work in the spring. Against Green Bay he hit six different targets, connecting on quick slants, deep crossing patterns and back-shoulder throws. Nicks was the big fish, with seven catches for 165 yards and two touchdowns. "I have always been told that big-time players step up in big-time games," says Nicks, the 29th pick out of North Carolina.
Cruz has stepped up all season. A 2010 undrafted free agent from UMass, he played three games last season and had no receptions. But in the spring Manning saw the speed and the possibilities. Now Cruz is his best deep threat and owner of the franchise mark for receiving yards in a season (1,536 on 82 catches). "It's a great credit to Victor," Manning says. "He's worked extremely hard learning this offense. We did get together a good bit in the off-season, to make sure we're on the same page of how we're going to read things. He's done a good job understanding how to get open in a zone, beating man coverage, all of those things."
Manning felt good enough about his receiving corps that he didn't publicly campaign this summer for the Giants to bring back Super Bowl XLII hero Plaxico Burress, who was reinstated last July after serving two years in jail on weapons charges. Manning was content to go to battle with his workout warriors from the spring. "With Eli in charge," Nicks says, "we can get the job done."
AS MANNING'S FAMILY waited for him by the visitors' locker room, Archie recalled the moment this autumn when he told his wife, Olivia, that 2011 would be less stressful with only one son under center; big brother Peyton sat out the Colts' season recovering from neck surgery. "Just three hours of nervousness instead of six," Archie said.
By the end of the Giants' win on Sunday, Archie had changed his mind. "That still felt like six hours," he said.
None of it bothered Olivia, who was beaming when she spotted her son in a crowded hallway. Over a mass of bodies, she reached out and grabbed his hand. "We'll see you in San Francisco," she said.
Manning, the quarterback of many throws and few words, just nodded.