The Giants were feeling awfully good about themselves after a 27-20 win over the Cowboys, and you certainly can understand their well-earned sigh of relief in the wake of a miserable loss six nights earlier in Philadelphia. That was one of the worst losses of the Tom Coughlin-Eli Manning era, and at least it didn't set off the avalanche of six more defeats that last season's 27-0 nightmare at the Linc precipitated.
But let's be real here: The Giants were fortunate to beat a badly wounded Cowboys team that trotted out its third quarterback of the season Sunday -- a quarterback who wasn't even with the team when Tony Romo suffered a collarbone injury that could turn out to be the undoing of the defending NFC East champions.
Matt Cassel was so inept in relief of Brandon Weeden that he threw three interceptions in less than a 15-minute span of the second half -- and still the Giants needed a muffed punt by Cole Beasley at the end to secure the win.
So go ahead, throw whatever compliments you like at the Giants, but keep in mind that they're still barely above average and still are scrounging together a defense that lacks a big-time pass rush and allowed 233 rushing yards Sunday.
Props to Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie for his two interceptions, including a momentum-swinging pick-6 in the third quarter. And a terrific kickoff return by Dwayne Harris, who took it 100 yards to the house for the winning touchdown after Cassel drove the Cowboys 80 yards against a patchwork defense to tie the score midway through the fourth quarter.
But the postgame analysis here requires one gigantic dose of perspective before anyone reads anything else into this except the fact that the Giants beat a team that has lost every game without the services of its starting quarterback.
Fortunately, linebacker Jon Beason, who led the Giants with 11 tackles, also was there to lead his team with the appropriate context about the result.
"The mark of a true team, whether it's the offense, defense or special teams, someone needs to step up and make a play in a big-time game, and collectively we did enough to get the win," Beason said.
True enough. But . . .
"The standards are really high for us," he said. "We know that we have the potential to be a really good football team and it's still somewhat early in the season. When it's not pretty but you still win, that's a plus. On your worst day, you've got to be good enough to win. We got that done, but we're going to go back and watch the tape, let's make some corrections, because there's plenty of plays out there that we could have been better on."
They'll have to be better than what they were Sunday if they want to contend with the suddenly revived Saints, who have won two straight and three of their last four. With Drew Brees looking as if he's nearly all the way back from an early-season shoulder injury, he will be a dangerous opponent Sunday in the Superdome, where the Giants have had some positively brutal games in recent years. The Giants haven't beaten the Saints in New Orleans since Dan Reeves was the coach.
"I know them well," Beason said of the Saints, recalling his days with the Panthers. "It's a tough place to go to and get a win. They go as Drew Brees goes. He's a great leader, extremely consistent. We're going to have to be extremely sharp. He's the guy we have to stop next week."
Beason knows the Giants will have to be better than they were against the Cowboys to compete against the Saints in New Orleans on Sunday, let alone any of the elite teams in the league this year.
It's an odd season and an odd division, for sure, and 4-3 for now is good enough for first place in the NFC East. The Giants are one of several teams that range from barely above average to a shade below mediocre, and they might not have the talent to rise above that.
No one seems capable of running away with the NFC East, and there's a good chance only the division winner will go to the playoffs. The Giants are certainly in that mix, and there's still a chance that they can show continued improvement in the second half of the season.
It's a plucky group that Tom Coughlin likes to describe as "gritty" and "scrappy."
"They battle and they fight you and you can't say enough about that aspect," Coughlin said.
But in this league, you need more than just grit to get you where you want to go. You need playmakers, and the Giants just don't have a lot on their roster. Especially on defense. They buckled against the Cowboys for a second time this season, but fortunately, Harris' kickoff return and Beasley's muffed punt bailed them out at the end.
There was no nightmare ending like the season opener in Dallas, when Manning lost track of the Cowboys' timeouts, instructed Rashad Jennings not to try to score and failed to take a sack on a critical third-down play that might have sealed a win instead of precipitating a loss.
But it's going to take more than barely beating a third-string quarterback at home to put the Giants at a level that makes them legitimate playoff contenders, much less Super Bowl candidates.
Nice to get the win. Still not enough to win over the doubters.
Beat Drew Brees next week, and then we'll talk.