Dez Bryant of the Dallas Cowboys breaks free from Kenny...

Dez Bryant of the Dallas Cowboys breaks free from Kenny Phillips of the New York Giants in the 3rd quarter at the New Meadowlands Stadium. (Nov. 14, 2010) Credit: David Pokress

It wasn't too long ago that the NFC East was known as the heavyweight division of the NFL. The Giants, Eagles, Redskins and Cowboys pounded through the snow and cold of the Northeast, mauling each other into submission. Bruisers such as Brandon Jacobs and Marion Barber could trace their lineage back to John Riggins and Moose Johnston.

But now there's a new generation of personalities in the division. They aren't plodding running backs behind bulldozing lines, pushing forward for 3 yards and a splat of mud. They are DeSean Jackson, Dez Bryant and other quick-strike weapons who, in the last year and a half, have given the NFC East wings. Gone are the head-bangers. In are the over-your-heads.

And that's bad news for the Giants. Because if there is one thing they have shown in recent history that they are unable to do, it's stop big plays.

It was a huge issue last season, when they allowed 49 passes of 20 or more yards. Nineteen came against NFC East opponents, including three of the four that went more than 50 yards. The Giants appeared to have pinched that problem, having allowed only 14 passes of 20 or more yards in the first eight games this season. But then came seven of them against the Cowboys on Sunday, and all of a sudden, it's an area of concern. Again.

"They attacked our weakness, and they made plays," cornerback Terrell Thomas said after the 33-20 loss to Dallas.

"We've been in games where, in any two games there might be three big plays against," Tom Coughlin said Monday. That ratio certainly skyrocketed Sunday.

Just as the Giants were finishing figuring out what went wrong with their secondary, they settled in to watch the Monday Night Football game, and on the first play, Michael Vick launched an 88-yard bomb to Jackson. Vick had six passes of 20 or more yards in the game, plus a run of 21.

It's not just the Cowboys and Eagles airing it out in the NFC East. The Giants actually have the most pass plays of 20 or more yards in the division this season with 38, which leads the conference. They have only five of more than 40, though. The Eagles (10), Redskins (nine) and Cowboys (seven) all have more.

Keeping pace is one thing. The Giants must now show that they can stop the long passes. That's why they brought in Antrel Rolle and Deon Grant and teamed them with a healthy Kenny Phillips. On Sunday against the Cowboys, the safeties were regularly out of position. It was as if C.C. Brown and Aaron Rouse were haunting the secondary.

For what it's worth, the Giants don't seem very concerned about stopping big plays. They don't believe Dallas exposed any vulnerabilities that seven other opponents couldn't crack.

"If you turn on the film, they weren't doing a lot of crazy things to exploit us; we just weren't getting it done," Grant said. "If you see guys running wide open, that's when you can say that. There wasn't anybody running wide open. I'm not going to say they exposed us because we were in good position. We just weren't making the plays we needed to make."

Against the Eagles, they're going to have to make those plays. And they'll have to make them when they meet Philly again in December. And as long as the electrifying Bryant is on the Cowboys, they'll have to stop him twice a year, too.

It's the changing personality of the NFC East. If the Giants can't keep up, they'll be chasing the receivers downfield for years to come.

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