The play that provided the winning points for the Giants began with Marcellus Rivers going in motion to the left, which was only the opposite way he was supposed to go.
The play that could have provided the crushing blow to the Giants allowed a Cowboys receiver to run free, with no defenders in sight, followed immediately by a sure interception that whizzed through the arms of Omar Stoutmire.
No, the Giants yesterday at Texas Stadium were not exactly humming right along, and the imperfections in their performance were on display for all to see.
"When you're on the road, you can crumble," Jim Fassel said. "We didn't crumble."
Embroiled in a tight, tense affair with the Cowboys, the Giants rid their minds of the negativism that could have filtered in. They gave up the lead in the fourth quarter, regained it with an impressive drive, then held on for dear life, escaping with a 21-17 victory that changes the entire direction of their season.
"To be able to do things in the clutch when you need them is obviously a good sign," Kerry Collins said. "It can mean a lot. Last week was a tough week. Everybody was kind of down; a lot of things could have gone wrong this week."
A lot of things did go wrong, but unlike last week's 21-7 loss in Arizona, the Giants (3-2) responded with heart rather than heartache. Collins fired three touchdown passes, Tiki Barber and an inspired offensive line jump-started the running game and a depleted defense, playing without its top cover corner, Will Peterson, regrouped from several potentially-damaging moments to finally put the clamps on any last-minute Dallas heroics.
"We couldn't go to 2-3, so we had to fight our way through this one," Fassel said.
This was a fight to the finish on a newly-installed artificial surface that caused players on a hot afternoon to come hobbling off the field with an assortment of toe and leg injuries. With Collins for the first time this season connecting with receivers Ike Hilliard and Amani Toomer for touchdown passes, the Giants led 14-10 at halftime.
But Quincy Carter found rookie Antonio Bryant in the back of the end zone for a 5-yard TD and the Giants, with thoughts of a fourth-quarter meltdown from a week ago fresh in their minds, trailed 17-14 with 10:52 remaining.
Immediately, the Giants responded with an offense playing without tight end Jeremy Shockey (turf toe) and guard Jason Whittle (back spasms). Barber (season-high 94 rushing yards) broke free for 23 yards and then, on third-and-3, Collins patiently checked off two reads before spotting Dan Campbell alone on the left side, and Campbell, a seldom-used part of the passing attack, rumbled 20 yards to the Dallas 18-yard line.
Two plays later, Rivers - on the field because of Shockey's injury - started in motion left before Collins straightened him out. "I was like, ‘Over here,' " Collins said.
Rivers got a step on linebacker Dexter Coakley and Collins directed a missile over the middle that Rivers snatched for a 17-yard TD with 6:51 left.
The Giants then had to survive a scare when Bryant took advantage of a missed assignment in the secondary, running past cornerback Ralph Brown for what should have been a 49-yard scoring play if Carter had not overthrown his target.
Later, with 2:03 left, Cowboys coach Dave Campo decided to punt on fourth-and-9 from the Giants 48 rather than try for the first down. The Giants got the ball back on their 11-yard line knowing they needed one first down to seal the deal. They got it when Barber ran for seven yards and then gained four more.
"One thing I didn't want us to do is come in here tight," Collins said. "We're not good when we're tight. We've got to be loose, we've got to be able to put things behind us. It's the mark of a good team that you're able to put things behind you and move on."