Giants' new-look D finishes off Cowboys

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Giants coach Tom Coughlin made several defensive changes that seemed to pay off Sunday against the Cowboys. "It worked," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "From now on, the coaches are like heroes."EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The moves smacked of desperation. When Giants coach Tom Coughlin decided to demote Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenyiora and veteran defensive tackle Fred Robbins, it seemed like another shot in the dark during a season that was going nowhere.

On Thanksgiving night in Denver 10 days ago, the Giants didn't even pretend to be interested. It was a huge waste of holiday jet fuel and there were no signs that New York would be able to flip the switch and make a final push toward the playoffs.

But it's amazing how much embarrassment -- and even hatred -- can motivate a team. In a Week 2 win over the Cowboys, the Giants' defense had allowed 250 rushing yards. It was a humiliating effort that they were forced to relive time and time again in the film room this past week. And on Sunday, the Giants responded by holding the Cowboys to 45 yards on 23 attempts in a 31-24 win that puts them right back in the playoff race.

The Giants are one game behind the Cowboys (8-4) and Eagles (8-4) in the division race and Philly's headed to the Meadowlands next Sunday. And as awful as the Giants looked in losing five of six games, they reminded everyone Sunday that they still have enough talent to make some noise.

Coughlin was as animated as ever along the sideline Sunday, causing defensive end Justin Tuck to say it was the "reddest" he'd seen his coach's face since the Giants' victory over the Packers in the NFC title game two years ago. Coughlin was so disgusted by what he witnessed in Denver that he decided to make at least one radical change on defense.

He demoted Umenyiora, one of the most talented pass-rushers in the league, and replaced him with Mathias Kiwanuka. You'll recall that Umenyiora skipped practice before the season after a disagreement with new defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan, so it was hard to predict how he would react to the demotion. But teammates say that he took the decision in stride and worked even harder in practice last week.

"We talk about team defense, offense, special teams," said Coughlin after the game. "We wanted to be able to utilize our whole team in the process and I think that the guys accepted those moves well and I am just glad we won the game."

Coughlin doesn't want to say this publicly, but he needed to do something drastic to get his team's attention. The Giants missed at least 12 tackles in the loss to the Broncos and Umenyiora had not been playing particularly well. And by all accounts, Coughlin's decision resonated in the locker room. When Chris Canty replaced Robbins, defensive tackle Barry Cofield was forced to play on the left side for the first time in years. Cofield, who was matched up against center Andre Gurode and right guard Leonard Davis, responded with his best game of the season. He jumped the snap count twice in blowing up running plays to Marion Barber and he was a big reason the Cowboys accomplished nothing on the ground.

"Those guys are competitors," Cofield said of his three teammates (middle linebacker Chase Blackburn was replaced by Jonathan Goff) who were demoted for Sunday's game. "It's not the ideal situation, but they kept their heads up and they'll have an opportunity to re-enter the lineup. No one's safe on this defense -- and I think coach drove that point home."

Added Tuck: "It worked. From now on, the coaches are like heroes."

Of course, none of this will matter that much if the Giants lose to the Eagles on Sunday. But for at least one game, the Giants served notice that they're not ready to concede the division race. Brandon Jacobs and Domenik Hixon made huge individual plays in the win, but I think the best sign was the front seven stone-walling the Cowboys' running game after being gashed by the Broncos.

The game hinged on a play that occurred late in the first half. Barber caught a short pass from Tony Romo and turned it upfield before being stripped from behind by Kiwanuka. Umenyiora scooped up the fumble and raced along the Cowboys' sideline for 24 yards to set up the Giants' second touchdown.

The play changed the complexion of the game and it gave the Giants a lot of momentum heading into halftime. It seemed fitting that Umenyiora and his replacement Kiwanuka teamed up on the play.

"Right there at the half that change of events was huge," Coughlin said. "To get the seven, then turn around and have an opportunity to score again right before the half with the turnover and Osi picked it up to put us in good field position there. We certainly capitalized on that."

In watching film of September's game against the Cowboys, the Giants realized they needed to change some of their alignments. They weren't maintaining gap responsibilities in that game, but on Sunday, the Cowboys' talented running backs couldn't locate any holes.

"We were embarrassed by how we played last time," Cofield said. "And that's about all the motivation you need."