Their victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday at Giants Stadium gave the New York Giants a one-game lead in the NFC East with four weeks left in the regular season, and signaled that they can win on a day when quarterback Eli Manning and their offense aren't in peak form. But the Giants still have some heavy lifting to do to secure the division title.

They're only 1-3 away from Giants Stadium, and they play three of their final four games on the road -- at Philadelphia, Washington and Oakland, with a difficult Dec. 17 home game against the Kansas City Chiefs thrown into the mix.

"We've got a little bit of a lead," tailback Tiki Barber said after New York's 17-10 triumph over the Cowboys. "Unfortunately, we still have to go to Philadelphia and go to Washington. It's not easy, by any measure. This is no time to relax."

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue dismissed the competitive aspects of his decision to move the New Orleans Saints' scheduled home opener against the Giants in September to Giants Stadium. Having the game in the New York area to use it as a platform to raise money for Hurricane Katrina victims was far more important, Tagliabue said at the time. No other NFC East teams raised any strenuous objections, at least not publicly.

But the Giants are taking full advantage of what Tagliabue did for them. They beat the Saints in their extra home game and are 7-1 at Giants Stadium this season, with one more game to play there.

Owens Battle Continues

The NFL Players Association filed another grievance yesterday on behalf of deactivated Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens.

This time, however, the union isn't attempting to get Owens back on the field this season. It is contesting the Eagles' bid to force Owens to repay $1.725 million of his $2.3 million signing bonus.

The team reiterated to Owens last week that it wants the money back, maintaining that the terms of his contract entitle the club to the reimbursement. The Eagles owe Owens about $1 million in salary for the final five games of the season but plan to withhold payment of that money and deduct it from the amount they say that Owens now owes them. The club informed Owens as far back as last summer, in a letter from Coach Andy Reid, that it intended to seek repayment of the bonus money.

The union also is seeking damages for Owens, asserting that the Eagles' deactivation of him is a violation of their contractual duty to provide him with an opportunity to work.

The union sought in its previous grievance to overturn the Eagles' four-game suspension of Owens for conduct detrimental to the team and deactivation of him for the remainder of the season. Arbitrator Richard Bloch upheld the sanctions, but the union is exercising its veto power to remove Bloch from the list of arbitrators used by the league. . . .

It just keeps getting worse for the Eagles, who learned yesterday that they have lost tailback Brian Westbrook for the rest of the season because of a severe foot sprain suffered in Monday night's 42-0 loss to Seattle. He will join quarterback Donovan McNabb on the injured reserve list. . . .

Green Bay Packers wide receiver Javon Walker reportedly has dismissed Drew Rosenhaus as his agent. Walker and Owens were among the high-profile Rosenhaus clients who threatened to hold out from NFL training camps this past summer in pursuit of new contracts. In Walker's case, that drew a public rebuke from Packers quarterback Brett Favre. Walker backed down and reported to camp without a new deal, then suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opening game. . . .

The Chicago Bears are on their first eight-game winning streak in 20 years, and rookie quarterback Kyle Orton has started every game during the team's 9-3 season. No NFL coach, including the Bears' Lovie Smith, wants to make a major change when things are going well. But Sunday's 19-7 triumph over the Packers demonstrated more clearly than ever that the Bears are winning despite Orton's play, not because of it. Their overpowering defense has made them a Super Bowl contender in the wide-open NFC. And, with former starting quarterback Rex Grossman close to recovering from the broken ankle he suffered during the preseason, it's possible that Smith could consider making a quarterback switch.

"Every position we have is based on performance," he said during a news conference this week. "If you're the starter, you have to perform at a certain level to continue to play."

Orton threw for only 68 yards and had a passer rating of 23.7 against the Packers. He is the NFL's lowest-rated passer, but Smith indicated that he remains the club's starter at this point.

"We need to improve our quarterback play," Smith said. "We need to improve our passing game as a whole. Anyone involved in the passing game needs to pick it up a bit in order for us to continue this path to win our division and get in the playoffs. . . . [But] I'm going to look at what he's done overall. You can look at his quarterback rating. Of course, it isn't exactly what you would like your quarterback rating to be. But in the end, I'm going to look at how many games he's won and figure he can do the job."

Bengals Prove Point

The Cincinnati Bengals already had demonstrated that they could play on even footing with the good teams in the league. But they needed to show that they actually could beat a good team, and they finally did so Sunday when they won at Pittsburgh to all but wrap up the AFC North title.

They have been transformed from a laughingstock into a soon-to-be division champion by third-year coach Marvin Lewis, and now they're looking at a short-term future that likely will include a home playoff game and perhaps even a first-round playoff bye next month. Their 9-3 record ties them with Denver in the race for the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs behind the unbeaten Indianapolis Colts. "We still have a lot of football to be played," Lewis said during his news conference Monday. "But it's time to stop hiding from it. It's time for us to go sit in the front row."

The Bengals went 8-8 in each of Lewis's first two seasons, and now they've clinched their first winning season since 1990. Before Sunday, however, they had not truly arrived as a top team because they had faltered the two previous times this season in a big-game atmosphere, losing at home to the Steelers and Colts. . . .

Suddenly, the job security of Coach Mike Mularkey and team president Tom Donahoe is being questioned in Buffalo. The Bills' folding act Sunday against the Miami Dolphins -- they squandered a 23-3 lead and lost, 24-23 -- dropped their record to 4-8, that after a 2004 season in which they went 9-7 and nearly reached the playoffs.

The main problem, it seems, is that Donahoe and Mularkey haven't been able to decide whether they're in win-now mode or taking a long-range view. They dumped veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe in the offseason and decided to go with second-year pro J.P. Losman as their starter. But when Losman struggled early in the season, Mularkey sat him down and went with Kelly Holcomb. Losman is playing again, and threw three touchdown passes Sunday to wide receiver Lee Evans. But Losman missed out on valuable playing time when the Bills turned to Holcomb, and the lift that Holcomb provided the team was only temporary.

Even so, it's Donahoe, not Mularkey, who's getting most of the heat. Donahoe had to field questions from fans about his job security on his radio show and in an online chat this week.

Running back Tiki Barber and the Giants play three of their final four games on the road. "It's not easy, by any measure," he said. "This is no time to relax."