All week, he stored his ego on a shelf in his dressing stall, alongside his helmet, right next to the irresistible Victor Cruz.
The recurring crowds formed to the left of Hakeem Nicks, , the undrafted wonder of the universe, and leaving the man with the first-round pedigree to mind his own preplayoff business.
“When it comes to the media, if you ask me a question, I’ll talk to you,” Nicks said when asked what it felt like to be a receiver with 1,192 yards and 7 touchdowns and yet drawing no coverage. “If not, well, maybe another day.”
Sunday — in the first playoff game of Nicks’s three-season Giants career — was his day to draw the crowds, the questions and the kudos as the most spectacularly deployed weapon of the Giants’ suddenly multidimensional arsenal.
“There were times I was in the slot and they paid more attention my way,” Cruz said. “That opened things up. Hakeem did a great job of taking advantage.”
Cruz acknowledged that it couldn’t have been easy for Nicks, having reporters to get Cruz’s attention.
“To do it here, on this stage, I’m just so happy for him,” he said.
With Cruz largely kept under control, Nicks caught two touchdown passes and contributed a diving third-down reception to set up a field goal. By the time those 17 points were on the board, the Falcons were mentally on the bus, dirty birds — playoff pigeons, really — on the way home to Atlanta.
In what is becoming a leaguewide epidemic of bad imitations of opponents’ victory dances, Nicks performed his version of the Falcons’ Dirty Bird celebration dance after his catch of a short pass over the middle and electrifying run for a 72-yard touchdown late in the third quarter of the .
Not the natural showoff, Nicks copped to the plea that Giants safety Antrel Rolle put him up to it. Under the hot lights of the interview room, he removed his dark glasses and casually dispelled the notion of his feeling envious or compelled to succeed in light of being upstaged this season by Cruz.
“I didn’t feel like I had to prove nothing,” he said. “I know what I am capable of. Victor Cruz is a great addition to our offense, and he makes plays when he is called on, and the same with all the other guys.”
When you beat a very good offensive team, 24-2, and outgain it, 442-247, there is no shortage of playmakers, beginning with the quarterback. Though he’ll never ace the audition of the White Swan, Manning woke up a sleepy Giants offense by scrambling for 14 yards on third down before Brandon Jacobs rumbled 34 yards to set up the first touchdown — a leaping 4-yard grab by Nicks in the back of the end zone.
Jacobs, with 92 yards, spearheaded the Giants’ much-maligned ground game. Led by Nicks’s six receptions for 115 yards, Manning spread his 23 completions among eight receivers.
As for the defense, its stop of Matt Ryan and the Falcons from punching out a measly yard at the Giants’ 21 with 4 minutes 21 seconds left in the third quarter begat the Manning short pass to Nicks, who broke free for the 72-yarder.
“It was zone coverage, and I was actually about to sit,” Nicks said, meaning he would get underneath the safety and just wait to see what developed. “But when I saw all the linebackers’ zone-drop out of there, I just tried to get in Eli’s vision.”
It was no surprise that Jason Pierre-Paul helped stuff Ryan and set the stage for Nicks to complete what might have been a symbolic sequence, the rebirth of the Giants as a contender.
The Packers will have much to say about that on Sunday at Green Bay. But the Giants at least have the look of a dangerous team again, with a superior front four anchoring its galvanizing defense; breakaway weapons on the flanks; a capable if not overwhelming running game; and a seasoned quarterback who once upon a time won three playoff games on the road, then triumphed over perfection itself in the .
It is instructive to note that in the years after they scaled two New England mountains, Brady and Belichick, the Giants bade farewell to their most dominant defensive lineman, Michael Strahan. He has clearly been replaced by Pierre-Paul, selected 15th over all in 2010.
They lost the impact receivers Amani Toomer and Plaxico Burress, and General Manager Jerry Reese added Mario Manningham (who caught the Giants’ third touchdown pass Sunday) in 2008, then drafted Nicks in the first round in 2009 before adding Cruz last season.
So a little draft-day credit for Reese is in order. Cruz may be the once-in-a-generation diamond among the undrafted, but here were the Giants on Sunday winning their first postseason game since the Super Bowl four years ago with two of Reese’s last three first-round picks dominating on both sides of the ball.
“We play for a great organization,” said Nicks, in full company-man mode. “They obviously know what they are doing.”
On an overcast day in the Meadowlands, the Giants did enough to make people think they could even have a chance going forward, location notwithstanding.
“All of us have pretty good relationships and we all make plays,” Nicks said.
Ignore any at your own risk.