EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The New York Giants didn’t need a furious fourth-quarter comeback this time, using a less familiar script to punch their ticket to the NFL playoffs. They crafted a big early lead and then did enough in the game’s late stages to capture the NFC East title by beating the Dallas Cowboys, 31-14, on a sometimes-rainy Sunday night at MetLife Stadium.
Quarterback Eli Manning threw three touchdown passes as the Giants upped their record to 9-7 with their second triumph over the Cowboys in the final four weeks of the regular season. The Giants won three of their last four games after a four-game losing streak that dropped their record to 6-6 and threatened to unravel their season.
“We came together and knew what we had to do to win the NFC East,” Manning said. “And we got it accomplished.”
The Giants secured the fourth seed in the NFC’s postseason field. They’ll host the fifth-seeded Atlanta Falcons next Sunday in the Meadowlands in a first-round playoff game. The Cowboys finished 8-8 and headed home for what promises to be an offseason of discontent.
“We just didn’t get it done,” Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking said. “The game comes down to execution by the players, and we didn’t execute. . . . It’s extremely disappointing. There’s a lot of work that goes into it.”
The Giants’ season was built on the strength of five victories via fourth-quarter rallies, but they played from ahead in this winner-take-all game. While the Cowboys were making a series of first-half mistakes, the Giants grabbed a 21-0 advantage. Manning threw touchdown passes to wide receiver Victor Cruz and tailback Ahmad Bradshaw, sandwiched around a touchdown run by Bradshaw.
Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, playing with a bruised right hand, threw a pair of second-half touchdown passes to wide receiver Laurent Robinson to get Dallas to within seven points in the fourth quarter. But the Giants steadied themselves with a 28-yard field goal by Lawrence Tynes with just less than six minutes to play, and Manning added a four-yard touchdown pass to wideout Hakeem Nicks.
“There were some times tonight when it was a little nerve-racking, particularly there in the third quarter,” Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said. “But we straightened it around and finished the game the way we wanted to.”
Manning completed 24 of 33 passes for 346 yards. Romo connected on 29 of 37 throws for 289 yards. But he threw an interception and his night ended with a lost fumble on the Giants’ sixth sack of the game.
“Our defense has been playing phenomenal,” Giants tailback Brandon Jacobs said. “They did what they had to do. They shut Dallas down. . . . I would not want to face the New York Giants in the playoffs right now.”
These teams had played only three weeks earlier in a memorable Sunday night game in Arlington, Tex., in which the Cowboys had squandered a chance to all but wrap up the division title. They had a 12-point lead with less than six minutes to play in that game but let it slip away and lost, 37-34. Manning orchestrated two late touchdown drives and the Giants blocked a potential tying field goal attempt by the Cowboys in the final seconds.
The Giants followed that win with their second loss of the season to the Washington Redskins but regrouped to beat the New York Jets on Christmas eve to ensure that this game would be for the NFC East title. Romo exited the Cowboys’ defeat to the Philadelphia Eagles later that day after hurting his throwing hand on the opening offensive series. But he vowed all along to be ready to play in this game, and there was no reason to question his toughness after he played earlier this season with a fractured rib.
Romo seemed more bothered by the Giants’ pass rush than by his hand injury in the game’s early going. The Cowboys did next to nothing on their first four possessions of the night, as Romo was sacked three times. The Giants raced to a two-touchdown lead during that span.
Manning and Cruz struck on the Giants’ second drive. Cruz, maneuvering against cornerback Terence Newman on a third-and-one play, cut to his left and made the catch, then got to the sideline and outraced Newman and safety Gerald Sensabaugh to the end zone for a 74-yard touchdown.
The Cowboys went nowhere on offense and had to punt, which nearly worked in their favor. The Giants’ Will Blackmon dropped the punt and the Cowboys’ Alan Ball had a chance to grab the loose football. But he couldn’t make the recovery, and the Giants got the ball and took advantage with a drive that ended with Bradshaw’s five-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter. Cowboys safety Abram Elam blitzed on the play and went unblocked but couldn’t make the tackle on Bradshaw in the backfield.
Tynes sent a 40-yard field goal try wide right on the Giants’ next possession, that after the Cowboys had failed to recover another loose football on a fumble by Jacobs. The Cowboys finally began to have some modest success on offense but their drive ended when Romo was penalized for throwing a pass beyond the line of scrimmage after a back-and-forth scramble. The Cowboys appeared to down a punt inside New York’s 5-yard line but Ball was penalized for going out of bounds and then being the first player to touch the ball.
That gave the Giants a touchback, and they moved 80 yards for a touchdown on Manning’s 10-yard pass to Bradshaw. The first half ended, appropriately, with Cowboys place kicker Dan Bailey missing a 52-yard field goal attempt as time expired. But things improved for the Cowboys after halftime as they went 94 yards for a touchdown on their opening second-half possession, ending with Romo’s 34-yard pass to Robinson.
The Giants began to sputter on offense. They failed to cash in after Romo threw an interception to safety Antrel Rolle, with Jacobs being stopped by the Dallas defense on a fourth-and-one run. The Cowboys moved to the New York 10-yard line, where Romo failed to get a first down on a fourth-down quarterback sneak. But the Cowboys forced a punt and got to within 21-14 on Romo’s six-yard touchdown pass to Robinson with just more than 10 minutes remaining.
The Giants, though, had the answers down the stretch.
“We’re playing smart football,” Manning said. “We’re not making many mistakes.”