EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- By the time the tight game had unraveled into a blowout and a chilly day had given way to darkness, there were only Dallas Cowboys fans left in a windswept stadium to celebrate. They still have something left to cheer about, fleeting though it may turn out to be in these final weeks of the season, something more meaningful than the brief roar that greeted Eli Manning's return to the field after 10 of the most dispiriting days in New York Giants history.
These two familiar rivals have seen better days than this. But while the Giants collapsed in the fourth quarter to fall 30-10 under interim coach Steve Spagnuolo, the Cowboys can at least say they are clinging to life in the playoff hunt, as a deeply flawed team that is nonetheless still rattling around. The Giants don't make much noise anymore. They trudged away in near silence, perhaps numbed that nothing -- not even the dramatic bloodletting of this week -- seems to make a difference. They have their 11th loss, no general manager or permanent head coach, and lingering, painful questions about the underpinnings of a calamitous season.
The most notable thing about the Cowboys in the locker room was who was absent. Jerry Jones, the team's voluble owner, almost always holds his own news conference after games. But he didn't after Sunday's win, an unusual move for an owner who suffered a rare personal setback this week when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell signed a new contract despite Jones spending weeks trying to slow the deal.
Jones' fellow owners believe much of Jones' pique over Goodell is rooted in his anger over the six-game suspension levied against his star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, whose absence is apparent in the fits and starts of the offense without him. The contest was knotted at 10-10 for 14 minutes of game time before the Cowboys finally broke loose, but Dallas also had three short passes go for at least 50 yards apiece. As dynamic as those plays were, the offense still lacks the rhythm and consistency that Elliott's dominant running provides.
But after losing the first three games since Elliott began serving his suspension, the Cowboys have won two in a row, and they have only one more to play -- next week against the Raiders -- before Elliott is due to return on Christmas Eve against the Seahawks. In a jammed NFC playoff race, it might be too late by then for the Cowboys, but Sunday's victory over the Giants was another step in restoring the confidence of an offense that was occasionally humiliated in the first few games without Elliott.
"Coach [Jason] Garrett talks about it all the time, the only thing that matters is what we do now," said tight end Jason Witten, who caught one of Dak Prescott's three touchdown passes. "You don't know how it's all going to play out [in the] next couple of weeks, but let's give ourselves the best chance. I don't want to say desperation, but I would say the margins are really tight. We need to keep winning. It wasn't perfect. It wasn't a clean game offensively. I think it says a lot about our football team that we continued to work through it. You get this, that's two in a row, you're 7-6 and you're in the hunt. You've got to play well down the stretch and clean it up."
There is, though, a sense of reality among the Cowboys, too. Cole Beasley said he knows which teams have to lose for the Cowboys to have a chance, and he checks the box scores accordingly. Prescott's performance Sunday -- he was 20 of 30 passing for 332 yards and three touchdowns, though much of the yardage came on short catches followed by long runs -- is a boost for a team that has spent the last month hearing that its quarterback is diminished without Elliott.
"It says a lot for a young player to come in, have one of those games, knowing all [that] is on the line," Witten said.
"It's been a weird couple of weeks; a lot of people have been doubting us," Beasley said. The big thing we've been saying is we're not going to let the last couple of weeks define us. We know what we are. We just got to keep pushing forward."
Then, he added: "It's important just to show people who you are. No matter, win or lose, you're putting stuff on film. It's how you want other people to look at you and show what kind of identity you want to show as a football team and as a football player. It's important and it should be important to everybody."