Giants snatch season back from the brink of ignominy

ARLINGTON, Texas -- As Giants owner John Mara passed through the visiting locker room at Cowboys Stadium late Sunday night, he detoured to a back corner where defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul was packing his belongings for the plane ride home.

Mara quietly and gently wrapped his arm over the shoulder of his team's 2010 first-round draft pick, pulled him in close and spoke two important sentences.

"Thank you," Mara said. "We got our season back."

Thank you for partially blocking that Cowboys kick, the one that failed to reach the uprights and thus failed to send Sunday's thrilling 37-34 finish into overtime. Thank you for helping to beat Dallas. Thank you for snapping a four-game losing streak that now vaults the Giants into control of the NFC East.

And yes, Mara said, thank you for getting the season back.

"It's just good when the first pick in the draft (in 2010) comes through like that," Mara said a few moments later as he walked away from Pierre-Paul's locker.

The Giants' 37-34 win, of course, wasn't only the result of that partially blocked kick. Mara wasn't suggesting as much, either. We all understand the heroics created by quarterback Eli Manning, who for the sixth time this season put together a comeback in the fourth quarter for a win. He is playing the best football of his career, and it's an obvious and massive component to New York's position.

"They kept fighting the whole time," Mara said. "Down by two scores with 5:41 left, they just kept fighting. And I think that reflects on the coach and the leaders of this team, like the quarterback."

But the sequence of events at the end of regulation, which did indeed get the Giants' season back by giving New York control of its own destiny, was also a great reflection of the split seconds that can decide a season. And, in this case, very possibly a division title. Remember last week when Cowboys coach Jason Garrett called a timeout to ice his own kicker -- only to watch moments later as Dan Bailey missed his second attempt? It ultimately cost Dallas the game and a chance to firm up its grip on the NFC East. It was a bizarre coaching decision, almost as bizarre as the timeout he didn't call a few moments earlier, one that remains unexplainable and illogical.

This week, illustrating the way you're supposed to ice a kicker, Giants coach Tom Coughlin decided to once again call a last-second timeout as Bailey fired his first attempt through the uprights. This time, though, the strategy came with a purpose. It not only increased the pressure on Bailey. It also gave New York's defensive linemen an opportunity to see how the Cowboys would block them.

"That guard was strong cat," Pierre-Paul said. "On the first kick, he was heavy, and I couldn't push him. So on the second attempt, I said, 'Man, I just got to push through the center instead and try to block the kick. I stepped left and went through the center.'

"And the ball was right there."

Little moments. Little decisions that alter everything.

Two plays before Jacobs scored the game-winning touchdown, Manning completed a pass to tight end Jake Ballard. With 1:00 left in the game, rather than extend his arm for a touchdown, he resisted the opportunity in a key moment to avoid the possibility of a fumble.

The Giants instead ended up on the 1-yard line, and Jacobs then punched it in for six points. On the surface, it appeared as if Ballard simply couldn't finish the play when, in reality, he was intending to preserve a drive instead of potentially creating a game-changing gaffe. Those types of potential mistakes -- the ones that lead to brutal consequences -- have plagued the Giants plenty.

"Last week was a frustrating and difficult loss," Coughlin said. "To bounce back and to get a win under those conditions and to play the way we did (Sunday), I thought that was very important."

Because of the small moments made, the Giants now have a chance at redemption. Because of the small moments missed, the Cowboys are now back to chasing down a division title.

On Sunday, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo played an excellent game. He completed 21 of 31 passes for 321 yards. He threw four touchdowns with no interceptions for a 141.3 passer rating -- better than Manning's 90.7 rating.

But in football, it's about more than stellar play, sweet passes and a bunch of nice statistics. It's about those little decisions that can fuel a team or deplete it. This is not a wide-sweeping judgment of Garrett's ability as a head coach or the Cowboys' overall potential as a team. Heck, Coughlin has made plenty of blunders himself, enough to land on the hot seat.

On NFL Network
"NFL Replay" will re-air the Giants' 37-34 win over the Cowboys on Tuesday, Dec. 13 at 9:30 p.m. ET.

Instead, a night like Sunday provided glaring examples for both teams of what it's going to take to win the NFC East. The teams are now tied atop the division, and they'll play again in Week 17 on Jan. 1 in a season finale that could decide their postseason fates.

New York remained unstressed despite their massively pressurized media market and the potential for Sunday's game to spiral downhill. They made good decisions and executed in late-game spots that changed the result of this game. The Cowboys will now experience similar pressure. The way in which they respond will be telling.

So aside from providing some great drama in the NFC East down the stretch, the Giants' win on Sunday also showed us what it's going to take -- and what it's going to require avoiding -- for one of these two teams (or perhaps both in the case of a wild-card) to get into the postseason.

On Sunday, Pierre-Paul's blocked field-goal attempt was huge. But so was Manning's ability to produce a comeback, and Coughlin's calculated decision to ice the kicker.

The Giants got their season back Sunday. But they'll only keep it going if they can continue to supplement smart decisions with solid execution. For a lesson to the contrary, they needed only to look across the field to the players wearing silver and blue.

One season lived on Sunday. Another took a major blow. Both are still alive. It remains a major wonder, though, which owner will be saying thanks when Week 17 concludes.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @jeffdarlington

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