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Blast from the past

Charles Robinson
Yahoo Sports

More Robinson – Read and React: Mad Motown

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The defense isn't on the level of the Chicago Bears, the running back isn't putting up the statistics of Shaun Alexander and the quarterback is the other Manning. But only one thing matters to the New York Giants. December has arrived, and they have one important thing in common with Chicago, Seattle and Indianapolis.

They are now in control of their division.

Certainly, the Giants' power grab in the NFC East didn't involve the most impressive offensive performance, not with the kicking game still sputtering and quarterback Eli Manning posting a performance that conjured memories of his atrocious start in 2004. But nonetheless, Sunday's 17-10 win over Dallas was pivotal – a victory that running back Tiki Barber billed as "the biggest game of our season."

"We didn't play great," Barber said. "It wasn't great all the time, but it was enough and our defense held."

In fact, New York's defense did more than that. It dominated in a way that might have looked familiar to Cowboys coach Bill Parcells, who watched his former team don its red throwback jerseys, then pull one of the Parcells-era performances out of the archive, too. Dallas quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who entered the game with the league's seventh-best passer rating (91.8), was sacked four times and committed four turnovers en route to a 15-for-39 passing day.

That more than made up for Manning's inconsistency. The sometimes-erratic quarterback had arguably his worst game of the season, completing only 12 of 31 passes with no touchdowns and two interceptions. It was more than a slight concern for rarely excitable Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who tempered his remarks regularly with concern over the passing game and yet another missed field goal by kicker Jay Feely.

"We got four turnovers from them, but we gave up two," Coughlin said. "One was in the green zone (an interception Manning threw in the end zone to Aaron Glenn), so that was something you never want to see. I wasn't pleased with our second half offensively. We drove the ball on one occasion when we really had to but didn't finish the drive off.

"I'm looking for us to finish the game on offense in that situation."

Coughlin has had mercurial units from top to bottom, winning and losing games on defense, offense and special teams. And just when one unit is methodically raising its level of play – as the defense has been doing since getting blown out by San Diego on Sept. 25 – another unit drops into the abyss.

In the Giants' last three losses, the offense or special teams has blown a game – from the 16-13 loss to Dallas on Oct. 16 (the offense's fault), to letdowns against Minnesota and Seattle, which both featured prominent special teams failures. If anything, the defense has been the brightest and most consistent performer for the Giants, despite often being overshadowed by a flashy, big-play offense.

That may not last much longer, not with New York's defensive line playing as well or better than almost any in the league – including the Bears' vaunted front four. Without a great deal of fanfare outside of the Big Apple, defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora have become the NFL's most productive pass-rushing duo. The pair combined for three sacks against Dallas, giving them a league-leading 20.5 this season.

Even with Strahan's history, those are some surprising numbers. Strahan had fueled plenty of his skeptics last year, when injuries curtailed his season and had some saying he was washed up. In response, he arrived to training camp almost 15 pounds lighter and in the best shape of his professional career. But it might have been Umenyiora who opened the most eyes, when the player who had been labeled little more than a speed rusher began showing a knack for overpowering tackles and holding his own against the run. He leads the Giants in sacks with 11 and has showcased a mental and physical maturation that Strahan credits to weight room dedication.

"He's in there as much as I am, maybe even more," Strahan said. "Mentally, he was more of a finesse player before – hitting the edge. Now Osi will be as physical as he needs to be, plays the run well, the pass well, and he understands how to set up a blocker before the pass rush."

Along with defensive tackles Kendrick Clancy and William Joseph – who has missed the last three weeks with an injury – the line has been the heart of the defense. Not only has it allowed linebacker Antonio Pierce the freedom to make plays against the run but, with its pressure on the passer, has also improved a secondary that was expected to be little more than inept this season.

"By in large, we were able to control the line of scrimmage," Coughlin said of his defensive line's performance Sunday. "We got outstanding plays from the ends as well. Our defensive game all the way around was just outstanding. There was only really one drive where we were back on our heels."

Thanks in large part to the scheming and preparation of coordinator Tim Lewis, who Strahan credited for improving the play in the unit's secondary, New York's defense has developed into one of the NFL's toughest units against the run. On Sunday, Clancy jumped a snap count so perfectly in the third quarter that he almost stole the ball from Drew Bledsoe before he could hand off to Julius Jones. Instead, Bledsoe fumbled and Pierce scooped the ball up and returned it 12 yards for the eventual game-winning touchdown and a 17-0 lead.

"It's something that's nice to have, when your defense is playing well," Manning said. "But from an offensive standpoint, we can't rely on them all the time. We've got to find a way to move the ball, get first downs. We can't have them on the field as much as they were."

It's a legitimate concern, considering the Giants now hold a one-game lead in their division and play three of their final four games on the road – at Philadelphia, versus Kansas City, then at Washington and Oakland. New York may not be able to afford another offensive lapse in any of those contests, nor one in the standings, with Dallas trailing by only one game.

"We've got a little bit of a lead and I guess that's a good thing," Barber said. "Unfortunately, we've got to go to Philadelphia, and we still have to go to Washington.

"This is not easy by any stretch of the imagination."

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