Streaking Giants must contend with a substantially tougher QB

Dallas Cowboys tackle Tyron Smith, left, helps against

Dallas Cowboys tackle Tyron Smith, left, helps against pressure from the Washington Redskins as quarterback Tony Romo (9) passes in the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tim Sharp) (Credit: AP Photo Tim Sharp)

This was just minutes after the Giants had put the finishing touches on their fourth straight win. Coach Tom Coughlin gathered his players in the middle of the locker room, took a knee along with them and shared in the moment.

"Hey guys, what's better than four straight?" he yelled to his players, looking ahead to Sunday's NFC East showdown against the Cowboys.

They yelled right back: "Five!"

And then Coughlin delivered the message about what it will take to get to five straight wins.

"We're getting a little bit better, [but] we need to step up and do it a little bit better than we're doing," he said. "Let's keep improving and working hard, and then let's keep the dream alive."

The players clapped enthusiastically around him, secure in the knowledge that four straight wins had at least given them a chance to get this far:

A win over the Cowboys at MetLife Stadium, and they'll pull even with Dallas and move within one game of the front-running Eagles.

It's an unlikely enough scenario in itself, considering the historically bad 0-6 start from which they're still trying to recover.

But Coughlin is right about what it will take now that the Giants have gotten back into contention for the division title. After facing a month's worth of opponents with quarterback issues, the Giants now have to step up in class and contend with some of the NFL elite.

No more Josh Freeman, Matt Barkley, Terrelle Pryor and Scott Tolzien. Now it's on to the big boys, starting with Tony Romo of the Cowboys and continuing with Robert Griffin III (twice) of the Redskins, Philip Rivers of the Chargers, Russell Wilson of the Seahawks and Matthew Stafford of the Lions.

The Giants have cleaned up against the jayvee. Now it's time to face the varsity.

But out of the Giants' four-game winning streak, a growing sense of confidence has emerged among the players, a belief that each successive win has been accompanied by legitimate improvement. And they're right about that. The Giants are a much better team than they were when they got past an awful Vikings team in a Monday night game last month at home. Week by week, they have gotten stronger defensively, and Eli Manning has been much more sure of himself after a dismal 15-interception performance during the team's 0-6 start. He has only two interceptions in his last four games, and one of them wasn't his fault.

Manning has gotten into a better rhythm after the roughest stretch of his career, and the return of Andre Brown to revive the running game has added an effective play-action element to the Giants' offense.

Manning started the season with three interceptions in Dallas, and now he gets another shot at the Cowboys at just the right time.

"Just got to keep playing smart football," he said. "Offensively, we've been more consistent and have done a better job of avoiding the bad plays. We just have to keep moving the ball, get positive plays, and when you have opportunities to hit some big ones, you need to do that."

But how the Giants fare in this next stretch of games will have as much to do with how well the defense plays as how efficiently Manning's offense performs. With the big-time quarterbacks they're about to face, it's imperative for the defense to rise to the increased challenge.

The Giants believe they'll succeed.

"You can look at the statistics for the [opposing] quarterback position and say there's definitely an increased need for us to be paying attention to detail because we're facing [quarterbacks] who are stable in the offense and have been around," defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka said. "But the main thing is, if we do our job, if we focus the way we've been playing defense the last few weeks, we'll be all right."

Kiwanuka can feel the confidence growing each week, even if the Giants have been the beneficiary of opposing teams' quarterback issues.

"Absolutely feel more confident," Kiwanuka said. "It was a long time coming, and we always felt like we had the ability. For whatever reason, we just weren't putting it together. Now we're coming out with wins, and things have changed."

Justin Tuck senses the renewed sense of optimism is legit, especially with the arrival of hard-hitting middle linebacker Jon Beason, who was acquired from Carolina in a trade.

"I do feel better about where we are," Tuck said. "We're playing better as a unit. Beason's here now, and he wasn't here the first time we played Dallas. That's been a huge addition for us. But just in general, we're playing more of a together type of defense."

He added, "If our play continues to improve the way it has the last four weeks, we're up to the challenge. Do I think we can do it? Sure I do."

They're about to find out. A win over the Cowboys, and this race becomes that much more compelling, even after such a horrid start.

A loss?

"If we lose this game, instead of us digging ourselves out of a hole, it's more like them putting dirt on us," Tuck said. "Mathematically, [a loss] doesn't mean we're out of it, but we're looking at it as a must-win."

No other way to look at it.