Kendrick Clancy had exploded so quickly through the Cowboys' center and into their backfield, crashing with a renegade's recklessness into Drew Bledsoe and Julius Jones, that he cost himself the joy of witnessing the balance of power shift in the NFC East. The ball popped loose on the quarterback exchange, leaving Antonio Pierce to scoop it into his hands and wobble into the end zone.
From his back on the frigid Giants Stadium turf, poor Clancy hadn't a clue that the ball had popped loose on the opening play of the third quarter. "I didn't know anything until I looked at the replay," Clancy said later with a laugh. "I thought Antonio was just running."
Pierce was just running to help make it 17-0 on Sunday, running on the way to a 17-10 victory over the Cowboys and an NFC East that is the Giants to lose now. Those white towels would start waving in the stands, the noise rising with the stakes on Sunday and these were harassing old times in the Meadowlands. Somehow, this defense has steadily blossomed into a monster when the Giants desperately needed its division championship and playoff run.
The Giants would survive Eli Manning's bouncing passes and interceptions, and Jay Feely's blown fourth-quarter field goal because the two oldest staples of winning football for the Giants - defense and running the ball - carrying this team a long way this season.
The longer Manning plays this season, the clearer it becomes that they'll need to carry him this season. Truth be told, he's regressed over the past month. The Giants won despite him on Sunday, a dangerous way to live in December. When your quarterback and kicker are falling apart, no one should get too comfortable with 8-4 and a game lead on the Cowboys in the division.
If Manning and Feely find themselves this December, this could be a dangerous team come January. Once again, it is about the two all-pros and leaders: Tiki Barber (30 carries for 115 yards) and Michael Strahan (seven tackles and two sacks).
Strahan has found life with young defensive end Osi Umenyiora like a rebirth. All those years opponents had to double team Strahan, here comes this big, fast kid demanding doubles of his own. Together, the Giants had four sacks of Drew Bledsoe, the leaning tower of Dallas. The pressure never relented. "They were in Drew's face the whole game," Clancy said.
Over and over, they needed to make stops to spare the stalled Giants' offense.
To start the season, they were embarrassed at San Diego. LaDainian Tomlinson did a dance on the Giants, leaving Clancy to remember, "That was just embarrassing. That means you just got totally whupped."
Early in the season, when Manning and the offense were keeping the Giants in games, Strahan himself said, "This is probably one of the worst defenses I've ever been on ..." Well, it changed. The kids grew up. They started to grow with understanding of Tim Lewis' system. Once, Umenyiora had been one of those young players who went home as soon as practice ended. No extra work, no tutorials with his teammate Strahan, a future Hall of Famer. This season, it changed. Umenyiora started staying late with Strahan, and the two of them together on the end is something sinister.
It's been liberating for Strahan, who had grown weary of the relentless double and triple-teams on the line. "The one thing I have noticed is that they can double two people on one play," Strahan said. "Osi always says to me, `How are they double-teaming both of us?' Well, there's a will, there's a way."
Now, they're devastating against the run. The Cowboys were the eighth team that the Giants held under 100 yards rushing this season, a long way from the warm air of San Diego in September to a blustery Meadowlands in December. Manning gave the Cowboys a late third quarter touchdown after his second interception, leaving Bledsoe to hit Terry Glenn for a 7-yard touchdown pass, bringing the Cowboys within 17-10 for the fourth quarter.
These Giants wouldn't let Bledsoe drive on them again. They made him look 45 years old, stopping him for consecutive three-and-outs in the fourth quarter until his pass to Keyshawn Johnson was intercepted just before the two minute warning. After one more gem of a Jeff Feagles punt, the Cowboys would get the ball back 96 yards from redemption with 1:22 left, and that wasn't happening into the teeth of this Giants defense.
It kept getting louder at Giants Stadium, kept getting closer to complete control of the NFC East. "They were louder than a turbo jet sitting on the runway when our defense was out there," Strahan said. "They made it like a playoff atmosphere."
For what is looking like a playoff team, these were just surroundings in the Meadowlands. Old times at Giants Stadium, with the towels waving, with Barber running the ball and Strahan chasing down quarterbacks. Maybe it only gets louder from here.
Bengals 38, Steelers 31
In Pittsburgh, Carson Palmer threw three touchdown passes and Cincinnati's defense forced four turnovers to all but secure its first division championship in 15 years. Rudi Johnson ran for Cincinnati's final two scores as the Bengals (9-3) seized a two-game lead in the AFC North Division. Ben Roethlisberger completed 29-of-41 pass attempts for 386 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions despite a right thumb injury, but the Steelers (7-5) dropped their third in a row.
In other NFL action: Indianapolis 35, Tennessee 3; Tampa Bay 10, New Orleans 3; Carolina 24, Atlanta 6; Chicago 19, Green Bay 7; Baltimore 16, Houston 15; Jacksonville 20, Cleveland 14; Minnesota 21, Detroit 16; Miami 24, Buffalo 23; Washington 24, St. Louis 9; New England 16, NY Jets 3; Arizona 17, San Francisco 10; Kansas City 31, Denver 27; San Diego 34, Oakland 10.