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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Victor Cruz's 99-yard TD still haunts Rex Ryan

New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz scores

New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz scores on a 99 yard touchdown catch during an NFL football game against the New York Jets on Saturday December 24, 2011 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS / Evan Pinkus

Nearly four years later, the play haunts Rex Ryan.

He was still in his heyday with the Jets, facing the Giants in a critical late-season game for both teams. The Jets were coming off a second straight AFC Championship Game, and at 8-6, it was a virtual must-win situation. The Giants also were in a win-or-else predicament at 7-7 and fighting to make the playoffs.

Late in the second quarter, with the Jets holding a 7-3 lead and the Giants pinned back at their 1-yard line, Eli Manning dropped back in his end zone, scanned the field and found Victor Cruz open near the 10-yard line. Cruz caught Manning's pass, eluded Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson and raced down the right sideline for a 99-yard touchdown.

"There's no question it sticks with you,'' Ryan said Wednesday. "It was Christmas Eve, we were in complete control, third-and-10, and they hit the 99-yard touchdown pass.''

Ryan even rattles off Manning's statistics from the game. "Eli's 8 of 27 passing. Not that I remember. He's got 225 yards, 99 on the one play.''

Actually, Manning completed nine passes in that game, but you get the idea. It was a season-changing -- and arguably a career-changing -- play. The Giants went on to defeat the Jets, 29-14, and beat the Cowboys a week later to reach the playoffs. They then went on a postseason roll and won the Super Bowl over the Patriots.

Ryan's Jets? They were never the same, finishing 8-8 and missing the playoffs. Ryan never got back to the postseason again and was fired after last season.

That one play . . .

"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. "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.''

On Sunday, Ryan will face the Giants for the first time since that game, this time as coach of the Bills. Cruz likely won't play because of a calf injury that forced him to miss all but a few individual drills in practice on Wednesday.

Ryan still can't forget the game that began a steady decline in the Jets' fortunes and his eventual ouster.

"The fact that we never got into the playoffs since then,'' he said. "There's so much that changed after that.''

The change ultimately worked out in his favor. The Bills hired him not long after Woody Johnson showed him the door, and he has injected enthusiasm missing from the franchise since the days when it went to four consecutive Super Bowls from 1990-93.

As badly as he felt after losing to Tom Coughlin on Dec. 24, 2011, Ryan holds no grudges against the Giants coach.

"I have a great deal of admiration for him,'' Ryan said. "I respect him about as much as any coach I've gone against in the league. We may be really different, but I appreciate him. I know it will be a tough football game. We know it's going to be a big-time game.''

It's rare to see Ryan accord that kind of respect to another coach, but there is a genuine appreciation for Coughlin. That's diametrically opposed to Ryan's treatment of Bill Belichick, whom he continues to criticize. How about Ryan continuing to get after Belichick for running up the score against the Bills in Week 2 at Buffalo?

Asked why Belichick would run up the score against a Rex Ryan-coached team, Ryan said, "Probably because it's a Rex Ryan-coached team.''

The Bills lost, 40-32, after rallying from a 37-13 deficit.

Ryan is clearly at ease again in saying whatever comes to mind, a feeling he didn't have in his final two seasons with the Jets. The dynamic had changed when John Idzik became general manager in 2013.

"I just felt it wasn't my team anymore,'' Ryan said. "It wasn't meant to be my team. I knew the pecking order had changed, and that's the way it was.''

He was given the keys to the castle in Buffalo, and he's enjoying every minute. Rex is back to being Rex. He does miss some things about coaching in New York, though.

"It's the greatest city in the world,'' he said. "Love the pace, the diversity, great places to eat. Everybody's happy doing their own thing. It's a beautiful city, no question.''

But make no mistake. Now Ryan bleeds Buffalo blue and red.

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