Jim Jeffcoat, all 6 feet 5 of him, knelt on the carpet in Texas Stadium almost as if all the tiring weight of mystique and tradition that goes with being a Dallas Cowboy were piled high on his back.

A teammate, second-string cornerback Victor Scott, had just intercepted the pass of New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms with 52 seconds left to ensure the Cowboys a 28-21 victory.

"I was just thankful," Jeffcoat said, "Thankful we had won the NFC East."

Indeed, in a fashion consistent with their wild, erratic season, the Cowboys clinched the division championship with Jeffcoat playing a major role, returning a batted ball for a 65-yard touchdown.

Another unlikely hero was third-team quarterback Steve Pelluer, who led them on their winning drive. Pelluer entered the game in the third quarter after Gary Hogeboom suffered a blow to the head and starting quarterback Danny White suffered bruises to the shoulder, ribs and hand.

"It's kind of amazing," Cowboys Coach Tom Landry said with the look of a man who has quit trying to figure out a team that has lost to the Bengals, 50-24, and to the Bears, 44-0, yet still won its division. "We can play so bad and we can play so good.

"This was as good a team effort as I've seen a Cowboy team play," Landry said. "We had to have a game like this to win."

White and Hogeboom both should be ready for next week's game against the San Francisco 49ers, which now takes on critical importance to the Washington Redskins. (To make the playoffs, Washington must beat the Cardinals and hope the Cowboys beat the 49ers or the Giants lose to Pittsburgh.)

Tight end Doug Cosbie and receiver Tony Hill were going three-quarter speed, and as the day wore on, some others weren't going at any speed.

"We were running out of players," Landry said.

But not soon enough for the Giants, who were on the short end of most the breaks all day, but can still qualify for the playoffs with a victory next week in the season finale against Pittsburgh at Giants Stadium.

But for the Cowboys, it was much more satisfying. "We've got a lot of young guys and not everybody's been on those teams that won the division in those years," said Randy White, who sacked Simms on the Cowboys' 18 to force a fourth-and-18 on the Giants' last drive. Scott's game-clinching interception followed.

Hogeboom relieved Danny White in the first quarter, and, at first, was going nowhere quickly. But after an 18-yard sack, Hogeboom came back two plays later to connect on a 58-yard touchdown pass with Mike Renfro for a 7-0 lead with 1:04 to go in the first quarter.

But Simms' 48-yard completion to Phil McConkey set up a seven-yard pass to Bobby Johnson to tie the game at 7 with 11:47 to go in the first half.

Then the Giants got one of their few breaks as White returned. Elvis Patterson, filling in for the injured Mike Haynes, stepped in front of White's pass and returned it 27 yards to the Cowboys' six. Two plays later, Simms hit Tony Galbreath on a 10-yard pass for a 14-7 lead.

The Giants were rolling, with a first down on the Dallas 22 as the two-minute warning sounded. A score before halftime could set the tone for the rest of the game.

Enter Jeffcoat into the back side of Simms' pocket on the Giants' next play. Simms' pass was batted by left end Ed (Too Tall) Jones, and right into the hands of Jeffcoat, who had been blocked behind Simms. Jeffcoat ran 65 yards, and onto the front page.

"I ain't dropped a ball yet," he said with a smile. "You could see the emotion leaving the Giants and coming to our side."

After New York failed to move on its next possession, a high snap to punter Sean Landeta proved disastrous. Landeta avoided the rush of Everson Walls and threw an incomplete pass. The Cowboys took over on the Giants' 12, and White threw a touchdown pass to Renfro on the next play for a 21-14 Dallas lead with 1:01 left before halftime.

The score held up until the final minutes. Pelluer, who had not played in a game this year, began his second drive from his own 28 with 8:39 left. When the ex-University of Washington player directed an 11-play, 72-yard scoring drive, with Timmy Newsome carrying over from one, Cowboys fans could finally breathe a bit easier.

Those fans also owe one to Pelluer and, while they're at it, one to Karl Powe, the Cowboys' rookie wide receiver from Alabama State. Powe and Pelluer correctly read a Giants blitz on third and 15 at Dallas' 48, which resulted in a 28-yard completion to Powe to keep the game-winning drive alive.

As the fans started for the exits, the Giants went quickly downfield and scored on Joe Morris' one-yard run to make it 28-21 with 2:09 left.

After three Dallas plays, the Giants got the ball back with 1:37 left. Simms' first pass was to Byron Williams for 45 yards to the Dallas 16. But the Giants would get no farther. Williams caught Simms' next pass in the end zone but was ruled out of bounds. After a blitz forced Simms to throw the ball away, White came around from the back side for the sack to set up Scott's interception.