Fifteen seconds that grounded Gang

CORTLAND, N.Y. -- One step faster.

Aaron Maybin lost his balance, almost fell, but kept going hard at Eli Manning in the end zone. The New York Jets' fastest pass rusher got to within two steps and the possibility of a safety danced in his mind, but the ball was out a split-second before he crashed his right shoulder into Manning's left side.

"We're talking tenths of a second, maybe a tenth or two," Maybin said eight months later.

One step faster.

Kyle Wilson delayed for a moment. He looked at the New York Giants' three-by-one formation -- three receivers to the right, one to the left -- and he thought the safety would cover Victor Cruz on an "out" route on the right side. The safety didn't, so he did.

"I hesitated a little bit," Wilson said. "You hesitate in this game, you're not going to be where you're supposed to be."

One step faster.

Cruz caught the pass at the 11-yard line, hit the brakes and did a backward jump-cut between Wilson and Antonio Cromartie, both of whom fell to the turf. Cruz shifted into "forward" and raced up the right sideline. Eric Smith, playing with a bum left knee that hurt so much he struggled to climb steps, pursued for nearly 30 yards before a futile dive at midfield.

The play went for 99 yards, only the 13th 99-yard touchdown in NFL history. It was the perfect call, a form of "two-man" -- two deep safeties, with man-to-man coverage underneath. It should've been stopped for a 10-yard gain, tops, but Cruz got away and so did the game.

So did the Jets' season.

When they reconvened in April for the start of the offseason program, the Jets received their marching orders for the coming year. After months of reflection, a painful period of self-evaluation, Rex Ryan decided on a mantra for 2012.

"One step faster."

• • •

It took 15 seconds -- from the snap of the ball to the crossing of the goal line. The Jets were ruined, and the Giants were revived, in less time than it takes for one possession in an NBA game.

The Jets were dominating last Christmas Eve, 10-3, planning to widen the gap before halftime as soon as the Giants punted the ball back to them.

Except the punt never happened. Manning-to-Cruz happened, a play that will live beside Dan Marino's "Fake Spike" as two of the most infamous plays in Jets history.

To paraphrase Andy Warhol, this was their 15 seconds of infamy.

The two teams meet again Saturday night at MetLife Stadium, 239 days after the biggest play in the history of the rivalry. And, yes, it still stings for the team that wears green.

"That's a tough play for me to watch," Maybin said.

Bart Scott won't watch it.

"Why would I want to watch it?" he asked, incredulously.

Mike Pettine sees it without having to watch it.

"Unfortunately," the defensive coordinator said, "it's burned in my memory."

Rarely in sports does one play have such a broad impact. Game-changing plays happen all the time, but this changed the course of two seasons.

The Jets never recovered and lost the game, 29-14. They lost the following week, missed a gimme playoff berth and endured an offseason of finger pointing and turmoil.

The Giants rallied from the brink of elimination and never lost again, riding the wave to their fourth Super Bowl championship.

The Jets had them backed into a corner, almost literally -- third-and-10 from the Giants' 1-yard line. If Maybin didn't stumble ... if Wilson didn't hesitate ... if Smith had two good wheels ...

The what-if game is torture.

"It flip-flopped our seasons," Scott said. "It gave them the momentum they needed and it sent us into a downward spiral."

Pettine said, "It shocked both teams and it sent us both in different directions."

It changed so much. If the outcome had been reversed, who knows how the teams would look today?

If the Jets had gone on to make the playoffs, Brian Schottenheimer might still be calling plays. Tim Tebow wouldn't be here; there would've been no reason to bring in a big name to push Mark Sanchez, who would've had three straight postseason appearances on his résumé.

The Giants might have a new coach. Remember, Tom Coughlin was close to getting fired. But in a span of six weeks, the pink slip turned into ticker tape.

It's amazing what can change in 15 seconds.

"The Giants were a different team after that play," Ryan said. "When you have that kind of play, the boost it gives you is incredible. Quite honestly, I've never seen it. I've never been on that side of it.

"I can tell you this," he continued. "When we came out in the second half, the Giants were a different team. They were all over us. They were clearly the better team that day."

Ryan and Pettine felt they had the perfect call in that situation. They rushed four and dropped seven into coverage. One of the seven was linebacker Josh Mauga, who got into Manning's view and leaped for the pass -- and missed by about six inches.

It was going to be a textbook stop, but the perfect storm developed at the worst possible time -- and Cruz broke free.

"Adios," Ryan said.

"All of a sudden, bang," Pettine said.

Lessons were extrapolated from the 15-second debacle. It reinforced the prevailing feeling within the organization that they needed to improve the speed on defense.

They wound up revamping the safety position, putting Smith on the bench and signing LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell. Pettine said they had become "dinosaurish," so they increased the athleticism in the front seven, drafting defensive end Quinton Coples and linebacker Demario Davis in the first and third rounds, respectively.

The defensive coaches also felt there were too many miscommunications last season, so they spent an inordinate amount of time in the offseason trying to fix the problem. That, too, has been a theme in training camp, especially in the secondary.

"We over-emphasize communication," Wilson said.

Tying it all together, Ryan hatched the "one-step-faster" credo. He wants his players to be physically faster and mentally faster.

If only they played that way last Christmas Eve.

"We earned what we got and the Giants earned what they got," said Ryan, refusing to make excuses. "There have been times when I relive that play, there's no doubt, but if anything it's to drive me.

"We want to be in the playoffs, period. We want to get into that tournament and see what happens. If you get hot at the right time, anything can happen."

And it can happen quickly.