Drew Bledsoe and Eli Manning are perfect examples of how quickly perceptions can change in the NFL.

Bledsoe came into this season with the Dallas Cowboys supposedly on the tail end of his career, a 33-year-old quarterback who seemed more likely to get sacked or intercepted than to make a big play.

Manning came into this season, his second with the New York Giants, with skeptics wondering if the 24-year-old brother of Peyton and son of Archie would ever keep up the family's reputation. It was supposed to take at least another year or two to find out.

Look at them now.

Bledsoe is the NFC's top-rated passer and Manning is second. Their success has sent the Cowboys (3-2) and Giants (3-1) into Sunday's game battling for an important early edge in a division that's also surprisingly strong.

"It's gratifying, for sure," Bledsoe said, smiling. "I've always had great confidence in what I can do. Is it frustrating not having more people recognize it? Yeah, that's frustrating at times.

"But, ultimately, when it comes right down to it, I knew what was going on. . . . Any speculation that my skills had dropped off is just not correct."

Bledsoe has had it rough the last four years, losing his job in New England after an injury opened the door for Tom Brady's emergence then trying to reestablish himself in Buffalo. He started strong, but failed to make the playoffs in three tries and the Bills cut him to go with an unproven youngster.

Being reunited with Coach Bill Parcells and wide receiver Terry Glenn in Dallas has been, for Bledsoe, like finding the fountain of youth.

Of course, it also helps having an offensive line that's kept him from getting sacked by Washington or Philadelphia and having receivers like Glenn (NFC-best average of 22.5 yards per catch), Keyshawn Johnson (two game-winning, fourth-quarter touchdown catches) and Jason Witten (second among tight ends with 23 catches).

"I've got guys that are getting open for me and making plays," Bledsoe said. "When that happens, my job becomes pretty easy."

Parcells was slow to turn Bledsoe loose, but he did last week against the Eagles and the results were stunning. Giants Coach Tom Coughlin tuned in during his team's bye week and was surprised by what he saw.

"They pretty much dictated to an outstanding defensive team exactly what they were going to do," he said.

With running back Julius Jones questionable because of a sprained ankle, the Cowboys might let Bledsoe fire away again Sunday.

For Manning, playing Dallas or at Texas Stadium won't cause his knees to knock. If anything, he might be excited to see the Cowboys considering what happened last time he faced them.

It was the final game of last season and Manning was 0-6 as a starter. Headed toward another loss, he marched New York 66 yards for the winning touchdown, the score coming with 11 seconds left on a run by Tiki Barber that Manning called for at the line.

What part of that stirring performance did Manning savor most?

"Not having to deal the whole offseason with answering questions of, 'When are you going to get your first win?'" he said. "I think it helped with my confidence in myself and the players in me also."

Manning has gotten better every week this season, at least according to a passer rating that's jumped at least 10 points each game. Two games ago he threw for a career-best 352 yards in a loss and he had a career-best four touchdowns last game.

He credits it all to "a better understanding of the offense, more comfortable with what's going on around me . . . and making faster decisions."

"Because I know what to do with the ball, my mechanics are better and I'm more accurate," he said.

It also helps that the Giants usually have good field position thanks to a defense that has produced a league-best 14 turnovers and a special-teams unit boasting the conference's leading kickoff returner in Willie Ponder and second-leading punt returner in Chad Morton. New York is averaging 34 points, tops in the NFL.

"Nobody has even slowed these guys down," Parcells said.

Parcells' preferred method for doing that is keeping Manning on the sideline. That means grinding out yards and burning up the clock, like Dallas tried doing the first four weeks.

Jones's injury makes that more difficult.

If he can't play, rookie Tyson Thompson is likely to start. He ran for 75 yards against the Eagles after Jones was injured, but tends to offset his blazing speed with mental lapses. Veteran Anthony Thomas also is capable of sharing the load.

Remember, though, that the Cowboys came out throwing against the Eagles and their high-powered offense.

Something else to remember: The Giants are allowing 322 yards passing per game and will be missing one of their top cornerbacks, Will Peterson.

Parcells, however, doesn't consider New York's defense vulnerable. "They've had so many big leads that people are just throwing the whole second half on them," he said.