They may have been playing America's Second Team, but any win against players with stars on their helmets is one the Giants covet. So Sunday's 27-20 victory over the visiting Cowboys, who were playing without their two most important offensive pieces and with their third starting quarterback of the season, was not one for the team to turn its nose up at.

At this point, wins are what matter. And the Giants barely got a big one, using touchdowns on offense, defense and kickoff return in the same game for the first time since 1951.

"It's a happy group tonight," Tom Coughlin said. "The exhilaration of victory, especially when most people tell you you can't, that's a great thing."

Having failed to beat Dallas since 2012 -- the day before superstorm Sandy hit this area, to put it in some time perspective -- the Giants (4-3) rebounded from a miserable performance against the Eagles. When Philadelphia lost to Carolina Sunday night, it left the Giants all alone in first place in the NFC East.

While most players refused to see this as a statement win, it clearly reestablished the team's identity as a scrappy group of gritty players, if not a powerhouse team. Perhaps in the NFL in 2015, a season in which there seem to be far more squads below mediocrity than above it, that will be good enough.

"I feel like we have a lot, a lot of talent in that room," defensive end Kerry Wynn said. "If we play the way we play, when we're the best at what we do, I feel like we can go a long way."

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That it wasn't Eli Manning and the high-octane offense that carried this team to the win adds clout to that thinking. In a game in which their quarterback and playmaking receiver Odell Beckham Jr. were held relatively in check, the Giants found players in other areas to step up.

Fourth-string running back Orleans Darkwa scored the Giants' only offensive touchdown of the game. After Dallas tied the score at 20, former Cowboy Dwayne Harris returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown with 7:01 left. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie had two interceptions, including one that he returned 58 yards for a touchdown. And Myles White -- perhaps the most anonymous player on the team -- was in the right spot to recover a muffed punt by the Cowboys' Cole Beasley in the final minute to secure the win.

"How about Myles coming up with that ball?" Coughlin said.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the win was how it changed the trajectory of the season. The eerie similarities to last year's downward spiral were beginning to mount, including a trouncing in Philly after a 3-2 start. A year ago, that loss led to one against Dallas the following week -- and another five straight beyond that -- but the Giants had anti-lock brakes this time and avoided a prolonged skid.

"All that stuff about last year and this, that and the other," defensive end Robert Ayers said. "Last year's last year. Every year is a new year. I'm just happy to be in a situation where we can control things a little bit."

Maybe Tony Romo and Dez Bryant would have had better luck on the field than on the sideline, but Rodgers-Cromartie and the Giants took advantage of the backups early in the third quarter to give themselves a lead after trailing 13-10 at the half. Matt Cassel's pass for Terrance Williams was picked off by Rodgers-Cromartie, who returned it 58 yards down the sideline for a touchdown. Knowing he would score, he had his hand in the air by the time he was at the Dallas 40. It was his second TD of the season against Dallas after a 57-yard fumble recovery in the opener.

The next Cowboys possession also ended with an interception, as Brandon Meriweather picked off a severely underthrown floater of a deep pass from Cassel to Williams at the 1.

Pinned against their own goal line, the Giants used a one-handed, 44-yard catch by Rueben Randle and a 39-yard run by Shane Vereen on back-to-back plays to get to the 11. The drive stalled there, though, and Josh Brown's field goal made it 20-13.

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Rodgers-Cromartie had a second interception on the first play of the fourth quarter, but the Giants were unable to convert it into points. That missed opportunity loomed large when the Cowboys drove 80 yards in nine plays to tie it at 20 on Cassel's 25-yard pass to Devin Street with 7:14 left.

But Harris' kickoff return quickly restored momentum to the Giants, whose defense and special teams made the TD stand up.

"We played hard, we wanted it bad,'' Coughlin said. "It keeps us in the hunt [in the NFC East] . . . That's the most direct route to where we want to go.''