Patriots

Cruz brings breakout season to Foxboro

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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."

The Patriots' only healthy QB offers little insight on Brady injury

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The Patriots' only healthy QB offers little insight on Brady injury

FOXBORO -- Brian Hoyer did his best Sgt, Schultz impression Thursday afternoon.

He saw nothing, he knows nothing and, had we asked him, Hoyer probably would have denied even Tom Brady’s existence. The Patriots backup quarterback has been thrust into the spotlight because of the right-hand injury Brady suffered in practice Wednesday. Though Brady appeared at the media access portion of today’s session, the team listed him on the injury report as not having participated. That would mean Hoyer -  as the team’s only healthy signal caller - had to get more reps than usual, right? 

“Define what is usual,” he said. “Since I’ve been here there’s been days where I’ve taken a lot of reps and days where I’ve taken any. I just do what’s asked of me.”

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So, you were asked to do more today?

“You’ll have to check the injury report. I don’t know if they put that on there or not.”

Okay then. This was just the beginning of a question-and-answer session that provided many of the former and almost none of the latter. Hoyer said he “wasn’t there” when the injury happened. When asked if Brady threw any passes today, the normally genial Hoyer paused before saying tersely, “you have to ask somebody else that question. I’m not going to answer that question.”

There were also a couple of “I’m not going to speak for him” or “you have to ask him” responses. Not unexpected given the nature of the queries but also handled better by every player we spoke to today, from Trey Flowers saying he’s not a hand doctor to James White joking the world will never know how Brady was injured to Kyle Van Noy saying of Brady: “He always looks good. He’s handsome”.

What Hoyer did have a good handle on was what he needs to do to be ready if his number does get called Sunday in the AFC Championship Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.  

“I prepare every week like I’m going to play,” he said. “Whether I do or don’t...that’s not really up to me. I did the one thing I can benefit from since I was the backup here - I played a lot of football. I’ve been a starter for three different teams. I know how to prepare as a starter. Whether I’m given those reps or not, each rep I’m not getting I take as a mental rep. I stand back there and I go through and I try to think who I’d go to, who would I’d make the Mike [middle linebacker] on this play. Whether I’m getting the reps or not I’m always preparing to play because you never know when your name is going to be called.”

The Patriots hope it doesn’t come to that. Hell, maybe even Hoyer hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“If I don’t play, that’s good for our team.”

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Brady injury has moved Patriots-Jaguars line 1.5 points

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Brady injury has moved Patriots-Jaguars line 1.5 points

FOXBORO -- You would have to be either supremely confident or supremely behind on current events to place a bet on the Patriots in this weekend's AFC title game. 

Tom Brady suffered a hand injury in Wednesday's practice and he was held out of Thursday's session (for all but the stretching portion), leaving him one final chance to practice on Friday before the Jaguars make their way to Gillette Stadium for a shot at a Super Bowl berth. 

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It's unclear how Brady's hand issue will impact his ability to play on Sunday. The expectation is that he will play, but his effectiveness . . . for now seems somewhat uncertain. And the line has moved as a result. 

The Patriots were once nine-point favorites at Caesars Palace, and they are now favored by 7.5 points. Westgate's line made the same move from Patriots -9 to Patriots -7.5. 

For those who feel as though Brady will be OK as he takes on the league's top-ranked passing defense, this represents a golden opportunity. For everyone else, this is probably a good time to focus your gambling efforts on the NFC Championship Game.