EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Nobody has to tell the New York Giants what this all means. A four-game winning streak piled on top of a six-game losing streak means the Dallas Cowboys come to town next week for a game that suddenly has weight. This Giants team is well-equipped to understand both the significance of its opportunity and the still-precarious nature of its self-inflicted circumstances.
"We know the motivation is going to be there," linebacker Jon Beason said. "It's the Cowboys. The winner's going to go on and still have a chance, and the loser is probably done. So this is going to be short-lived."
Beason's "this" was the excitement over Sunday's victory -- a 27-13 defeat of Scott Tolzien and the Green Bay Packers that fit the mold of the rest of New York's winning streak. The Giants were better Sunday than they'd been earlier in the season but still not great enough to make you think they're going to spend the final six weeks tearing through their schedule. They are hot, but they are also 4-6. Things are better, but not necessarily fixed.
"We're getting there," coach Tom Coughlin said. "We're moving toward it. Any time you win four in a row, there are some good things happening. And there are some things, as a coach, I would like to clean up, too."
The Giants have a week to clean up whatever still needs cleaning. Because things get tougher starting Sunday.
See, the fact that it was Tolzien and not the injured Aaron Rodgers directing the visiting team's huddle Sunday leaves the Giants open to questions about how much of this streak has to do with the relative quality of their opponents. They have beaten Josh Freeman, Matt Barkley, an injured Terrelle Pryor and now Tolzien during their streak.
The defense has been excellent, forcing 11 turnovers in the past four games and holding opponents to an average of 253 yards per game, even with the 394 the Packers got Sunday. But the offense -- especially the passing game -- still hasn't clicked the way it used to, and the caliber of opponents has left open questions about how "real" the defense's accomplishments are.
Starting next week, that is no more. From here on out, Eli Manning won't be the best quarterback on the field just because he showed up. The quarterbacks remaining on the Giants' schedule are Tony Romo, Robert Griffin III, Philip Rivers, Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford and Griffin again. All have their flaws, but they're all obviously much better than the guys the Giants have beaten over the past month. Which means the defense will be tested to an extent it has not been tested in some time.
Which means the offense has to do better. The running game is coming around with Andre Brown healthy, and the passing game looked a bit better Sunday in spite of some second-quarter hiccups.
"We still haven't had quite that breakout game where everyone is clicking and everyone is doing the right thing, but I think we're back on track," said wide receiver Victor Cruz, who was brilliant Sunday with 110 yards on eight catches. "This is how we want to play and this is what we want to do, so we're excited about that."
The Giants need for Cruz to be correct about this -- the idea that the passing game is beginning to click at this point in the season. Because if the Giants are going to keep this miracle idea of playoff contention alive for another week and into December, that's what it's going to take. Their great players are going to have to play great.
Jason Pierre-Paul offered a glimpse of it on defense, as he intercepted a Tolzien pass and ran it back 24 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Pierre-Paul is the kind of player who, if he elevates to his true potential, could make the Giants truly great at a vital part of the game. Manning and Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, wherever he is, fit the same description on offense. They can be great. They have been great, in the past, when the Giants have needed them to be great to win the biggest of games.
They need to be great again, and it needs to start Sunday. Because the 27 points they got against the Packers on Sunday are the most they've scored in a game since Week 1. And they're not going to beat the Cowboys, Redskins, Chargers, Lions or Seahawks unless they're at least capable of scoring in the 30s.
It's there for them next week if they want it. Dallas is a mess of injury and incompetence on defense, allowing a league-worst 440 yards per game and playing without injured star middle linebacker Sean Lee, among others. The Giants' best offensive performance of the season came in their season-opening 36-31 loss in Dallas -- a game they lost because they turned the ball over six times, not because they couldn't move it. Add in a defense that has a bellyful of confidence after feasting on the schedule these past four games, and you know these Giants have a chance.
"We're going to put it on them, man," Pierre-Paul said. "I'm pretty sure the offense is going to get going. The defense is going to get going even more. And the special teams will contribute to it. It's going to be a fight. It's going to be a dogfight. There's going to be a lot of blood spilled out there."
There is little doubt the Giants will be mentally and psychologically ready for next Sunday and, if they win, for what lies beyond. The remaining question is whether they -- and specifically Manning and the passing game -- can make good on the opportunity in front of them. As good as they're feeling about themselves after winning four in a row, they're going to have to be even better if they're going to make that streak any longer.