By Ernie Palladino
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Athletes deal with pain all the time.

Physical pain.

Emotional pain.

They get through it. But the way Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks overcame their respective anguishes in Sunday’s stirring 41-34 win over the Bucs, that was truly something else.

Cruz, playing with a busted heart over the death of his grandmother, and Nicks, playing with a still-sore right foot and now a sore left one after he got stepped on in the fourth quarter, combined for 21 catches and 378 of Eli Manning’s franchise second-best 510 yards of passing. And they each scored a touchdown, none bigger than the 80-yarder Cruz reeled in to knot the score at 27.

Say what you will about a squad that sometimes plays defense in a deep hypnotic trance, or a quarterback leader who looked nothing short of bewildered in a three-interception first half. But when Manning needed his top two receivers to step up — and this was after No. 3 Domenik Hixon went down with a concussion that will surely keep him out of Thursday’s game in Carolina — they were there for him.

Cruz especially, carrying the memory of the woman who just about raised him while his mother worked. It was as if she was on his shoulder the whole time as he flew past Ronde Barber down the right sideline.

“She came to mind as soon as I caught it,” Cruz said, his 11-catch, 179-yard day over just a week after he had three embarrassing drops against Dallas. “There was nobody in sight. When I got to the 3, I knew it was time to honor her. She was always there with me. And the place kind of went silent, and it was just me dancing with her.

“That was a good moment.”

It kind of makes you think that, like last year, there are going to be several more moments in the near future where Cruz will have dance his salsa. If Tom Coughlin has his way, though, they’ll come in somewhat calmer circumstances.

A blowout, maybe.

Then there was Nicks, learning to trust his throbbing foot again in a 10-catch, 199-yard outing that included a 40-yard catch on the first possession and a 50-yarder later in the game, and 23-yard scoring catch near the end of the second quarter.

The excitement the touchdown cause would, of course, be squelched by the Bucs’ answering TD on Eric Wrights 60-yard interception return. And he was nearly knocked from the game in the second half when a DB, coming across his back, inadvertently stepped on his left foot.

But he shook it off. Kind of like how this team shook off an horrendous first half.

“It’s great to have all our weapons,” Manning said. Hakeem hung in. Both those guys played tough and made some big-time catches. It’s a great 1-2 punch.”

So now we know Coughlin’s group can handle the pain. The Panthers on Thursday will reveal whether they can handle the absences. David Diehl could miss a good chunk of the season with his first-quarter knee injury, and Hixon will certainly miss with a concussion. The coaching staff will await a report on Ahmad Bradshaw’s neck injury, but at least they know that Andre Brown can do an acceptable job in his stead.

Sunday taught us something about heart, and that Cruz and Nicks have it in surplus.

That will help down the road.

Your thoughts on the Giants’ inspired win? Be heard in the comments below…