Giants 17, Cowboys 10

When the New York Giants first began having championship dreams early this season, their visions were of a revved-up offense that had tailback Tiki Barber dancing around opposing defenders and second-year quarterback Eli Manning zipping passes to wide receiver Plaxico Burress and tight end Jeremy Shockey. Their defense, at that point, was more of an eyesore than a dreamy sight, and the Giants could only hope that the unit would improve and be ready to do its part on those chilly days when the stakes would be the highest.

That moment arrived Sunday, with snow piled around the perimeter of the field at Giants Stadium and first place in the NFC East on the line on a cold, gray afternoon. And the Giants' defense delivered in a big way, bottling up the Dallas Cowboys offense and scoring what proved to be the decisive touchdown in a 17-10 triumph before a roaring, towel-waving crowd of 78,645.

"We knew coming into this one it was the biggest game of our season," Barber said. "We needed this one. We didn't play great. It wasn't always pretty. But we did enough. Our defense held together."

The Giants (8-4) rebounded from a difficult loss last week in Seattle, avenged an overtime defeat at Dallas earlier this season and moved a game in front of the Cowboys (7-5) atop the NFC East. Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells said he had told his players before the game that the first team in the division to reach 11 victories probably will win it and his club needs to win its final four regular season games to reach that total.

"They have a good advantage now," Parcells said. "But . . . there is a month of football left to go, so to be judgmental now with just a one-game separation would be a little premature."

The Giants won on a day when Barber ran for 115 yards but needed 30 carries to do so, and when Manning connected on only 12 of 31 passes for 152 yards. He threw two interceptions, both to Cowboys cornerback Aaron Glenn.

They also won on a day when their suddenly unreliable kicker, Jay Feely, sent a 33-yard field goal attempt that would have sealed the outcome clanking off the right upright with just more than five minutes to play.

No matter. The defense took care of things. With hard-charging ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora leading the way, the Giants harassed Dallas quarterback Drew Bledsoe into a 15-for-39, 146-yard passing performance. Bledsoe was sacked four times, threw two interceptions and lost two fumbles, the second of which was scooped up by middle linebacker Antonio Pierce and returned 12 yards for a touchdown that gave the Giants a 17-0 lead in the opening seconds of the second half.

"It all starts up front," Giants safety Gibril Wilson said. "I thought our defensive line played great today. They were in Drew's face all day. It all comes back to them."

A defense that the Giants admit looked like a liability early in the season held an opponent to 10 or fewer points for the third time in the last six games.

"I was saying this was probably one of the worst defenses I've ever been on, the way we were playing early in the season," said Strahan, who had two sacks Sunday. "But people took that personally, and we've gotten better. Today's performance was absolutely amazing."

The Giants lost in overtime at Texas Stadium in October but dominated the first half Sunday, limiting the Cowboys to 37 yards on offense. Rookie tailback Brandon Jacobs plowed into the end zone for a one-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter. Manning threw an interception in the end zone to keep the Giants from capitalizing on Bledsoe's first fumble. But they took a 10-0 advantage into the intermission when Feely, who missed three field goal tries that could have beaten the Seahawks, made a 27-yard field goal late in the second quarter.

It was 17-0 after the first snap of the third quarter. Giants defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy correctly anticipated the Cowboys' snap count, blew past center Andre Gurode and kept Bledsoe from making a clean handoff to tailback Julius Jones.

"He was back there so quick that he beat the running back to the ball," Strahan said.

Pierce picked up the ball cleanly off the turf and had no one between him and the end zone. "That was the easy part," said the linebacker, who left the Washington Redskins in the offseason as a free agent.

But the Cowboys managed to make things interesting down the stretch. They regrouped on their next drive and got a 34-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff to pull to within 17-3. The Giants offense began running in place. Glenn's second interception, followed by a seven-yard return, enabled Dallas to start a third-quarter drive at the Giants 7-yard line. Bledsoe threw a touchdown pass to wideout Terry Glenn on the next play, and Feely kept the Cowboys in contention with his fourth-quarter miss.

But Bledsoe threw interceptions on two of Dallas's final five possessions, the second one to safety Brent Alexander with less than two minutes to play. The Cowboys got the ball back at their 4-yard line with 1 minute 22 seconds to go for a last-gasp drive, but only reached the Giants 44.

"We just made too many mistakes," Parcells said. "We really did. We turned the ball over. We gave them an easy touchdown early in the second half. You can't do that on the road. That's what I thought the game came down to. . . . Our first-half performance offensively was really poor. It was a little bit better in the second half, but we just couldn't get enough generated."

The Giants' Michael Strahan sacks Drew Bledsoe, one of four on the Dallas quarterback, who also committed two fumbles.Giants safety Brent Alexander celebrates his fourth-quarter interception as Patrick Crayton, left, leaves the field.