Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

Back in a quieter, more innocent time, when we all were 20 days younger, John Mara stood in the Giants' locker room, beaming, and said this about his team's victory over the Jets: "It reinvigorates this franchise."

At the time, it appeared to be a bit of an overstatement from the usually understated team president.

Sure, it was a big game and a big win, one that kept one team alive and left the other reeling. But it hardly seemed like a franchise-altering moment for either side.

Now, with the benefit of less than three weeks' historical perspective, it is evident that that game was far bigger than anyone realized then, in ways that could echo until the next regular-season meeting in 2015.

The teams have rocketed in opposite directions as if blown apart in a chemistry experiment gone awry, one that Victor Cruz ignited with his 99-yard touchdown reception on Christmas Eve.

Derek Jeter's home run for his 3,000th career hit was the most historic New York sports moment of 2011, but the Cruz touchdown now must be considered the most important.

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Since then the Jets have been exposed as a rudderless, dissension-riddled mess in the locker room, with all sorts of people happy to share that fact publicly, down to the fourth-string quarterback.

Coach Rex Ryan abruptly lost his gift of gab, getting tangled up in muddled expressions of support for everyone from soon-to-be-former offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to pouting soon-to-be-former captain Santonio Holmes to soon-to-be-former golden boy Mark Sanchez.

One lesson moving forward for coach Ryan: Bravado and colorful quotes mostly are harmless entertainment for the media and masses. But being an authority figure who speaks publicly about actual people with actual jobs sometimes requires nuance and savvy of a sort that does not come naturally to the big guy.

Anyway, back to the Jets-Giants game.

Schottenheimer most likely sealed his fate by asking Sanchez to pass with the frequency of an Arena Leaguer. See ya. Now the Bill Parcells family tree suddenly has branched its way back into the building in the form of new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano. Recess is over, everyone!

The Giants? All they have done since Dec. 24 is defeat the Cowboys -- perhaps the only team ownership enjoys beating more than the Jets -- to win the NFC East, then rout the Falcons in the first playoff game.

Both games attracted a loud, proud crowd to MetLife Stadium. Which the Jets co-own, if you're keeping score at home.

Along the way, coach Tom Coughlin went from the hot seat to the likelihood of a warm, cozy extension that figures to take him close to his 70th birthday.

Next up: A playing-with-house-money divisional-round playoff game against the Packers.

Another victory Sunday -- and, who knows, perhaps even two more -- would only make the events of Dec. 24, 2011, loom even larger in local football history. More so if the ongoing, Red Sox-esque fallout from the Jets' collapse continues to unfold in spectacularly messy fashion.

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Mara admitted after the victory over the Jets that it meant more than most, after all the bluster that had been emanating from Florham Park.

Before heading home for what he predicted would be a very merry Christmas, he said, "Let's just say I wanted this game."

But even he didn't know at the time just how much was at stake.