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Defense helps Giants complete sweep of Cowboys

Romeo Okwara and Robert Thomas of the New

Romeo Okwara and Robert Thomas of the New York Giants sack Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys during the second quarter at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, Dec. 11, 2016 in East Rutherford, N.J. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Giants linebacker Jonathan Casillas said last week that the Giants could make a statement with a victory against the Cowboys.

When the game was over Sunday night and the Giants had won, 10-7, Casillas yielded the floor to his opponents for that statement. Theirs was the only one he wanted to hear. And he had the script ready for them.

“The so-called best team in the league has two losses and they’re both to the New York Football Giants,” he said. “They have to say that. I like when they say it. Who’d you guys lose to? ‘We lost to the Giants.’ ”

It was the biggest win of the season for the Giants, who have won seven of their last eight and are the only team to beat the Cowboys. They swept the season series from them for the first time since 2011.

The Giants (9-4) secured their first winning season since 2012. The Cowboys (11-2) remain in first place in the NFC East and, with three games left, still are likely to win the division, but the Giants improved their playoff standing by remaining a game ahead of the Bucs (8-5) and staying two victories ahead of the three seven-win teams vying for a wild-card spot: the Redskins, Vikings and Packers.

The Giants can clinch their first playoff berth since 2011 next weekend, but it’ll take some doing. They’ll have to beat the Lions in their final regular-season home game and have the Vikings lose or tie with the Colts, the Packers lose or tie with the Bears, and the Redskins lose or tie with the Panthers on Monday night. A convoluted scenario, no doubt, but a chance.

“We know we’re going to see them again,” Giants defensive end Olivier Vernon said of Dallas. “We’re going to take it one game at a time, but that’s what it’s shaping up to be.”

If the road to the Super Bowl does in fact go through Dallas, as many predict, the Giants seem to be the only team with a map.

That they pulled out this victory on a night when Eli Manning’s play was awful — he had two fumbles, threw an ugly fourth-quarter interception and had two other second-half passes that should have been intercepted dropped by Dallas defenders — and the offense almost was a non-factor speaks to the dominance of the defense. They allowed rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott to run for 107 yards on 24 carries but held the Cowboys to 1-for-15 on third-down conversions.

When the Cowboys finally did appear to convert one late in the fourth quarter, on the first completion of the game to Dez Bryant, cornerback Janoris Jenkins forced a fumble that was recovered by Landon Collins to give the Giants the ball with 2:13 remaining. Jenkins also had a first-half interception and is a big reason why in two games against the Giants, Bryant has a combined two catches for 17 yards.

“We’re a team to be reckoned with,” Collins said.

At least their defense appears to be. The offense? Well, it proved that no matter how poorly it is functioning, it is always one Odell Beckham Jr. play away from the end zone. The star receiver woke up the crowd, as well as his own moribund unit, with a 61-yard scoring play that gave the Giants a 10-7 lead with 1:07 left in the third quarter after Leon Hall’s interception of Dak Prescott.

Beckham caught a short slant over the middle, stepped past a tackle attempt by Barry Church, then beat Brandon Carr in a footrace to the end zone. It was Beckham’s 10th career TD reception of at least 50 yards and was the 34th time he has caught a touchdown pass from Manning, now the most common scoring connection in team history.

That single play accounted for nearly one-quarter of the 260 yards of offense.

The defense was the story. They were one blown coverage away from keeping the Cowboys scoreless, allowing a first-quarter TD when Prescott faked a toss to Elliott to the left, rolled to his right and found a wide-open Terrance Williams for a 31-yard scoring play. Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey’s 55-yard field-goal attempt to end the first half hit the crossbar and bounced back.

Even at the end, after the Bryant fumble, the Giants could not close out the game with the football. They had to rely on their defense to hold the Cowboys to a four-and-out in the final minute.

“It’s frustrating,” said Beckham, who dropped a would-be touchdown pass and another pass that would have produced a first down before the field goal by the Giants that made it 7-3. “I want the defense to be sitting there eating candy, untying their shoes, knowing the offense has the game under control and they don’t even have to go back on the field. It’s something we’re working on. It’s a process. It will come together at the right time. I truly believe that.”

It hasn’t yet. But Sunday night’s win might go a long way toward buying the Giants some more time.

“It’s still a long season,” Casillas said. “We have some games left. But I’m planning on playing in January.”

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