IRVING, Texas -- Sporting a 19-10 advantage, and having forced a punt with just 5:29 remaining in Sunday's game, the New York Giants took control of the ball at their own 30-yard line. The Dallas Cowboys trotted out their big-bodied defense in an attempt to thwart a series that figured to be exclusively comprised of running plays.
And so, on first down, Giants quarterback Kurt Warner let loose a long pass down the right sideline, intended for wide receiver Amani Toomer. Result: Badly overthrown and just six seconds bled from the clock. On second-and-10, Warner tried to force a slant in to Toomer, crossing from the left. Result: The pass was nearly intercepted by Cowboys linebacker Al Singleton and only four seconds expired.
So, facing a third-and-10 with 5:19 remaining, and having just barely dodged disaster, New York coach Tom Coughlin suddenly came to his senses and ran tailback Tiki Barber up the middle, right?
Uh, no, not even close.
Eschewing the conventional for the curious, the Giants came out for third down in an "empty" formation, Warner completed a slip screen to the left side to Barber. The Giants tailback got a key block from Toomer, and sprinted 55 yards. Four plays later, Barber scored on a three-yard touchdown run.
Game, set, match, and subsequent inquisition in the visiting team locker room at Texas Stadium about the unusual clock management deployed in the 26-10 victory.
"You know what?" responded Giants center Shaun O'Hara when queried about a series in which Coughlin hardly lived up to the conservative perceptions about him. "You want to be, at different times, something people think you're not. You want to do something that everyone in the stadium thinks you won't do. You want to fool the experts."
Through five games, and heading into their bye with a surprising 4-1 mark following a victory in which they dominated Dallas in the second half, it's pretty much been mission accomplished for the Giants so far in 2004.
New York has rattled off four straight victories after a lopsided season-opening defeat to the division-leading Philadelphia Eagles. A Giants roster reworked through the nearly two dozen modestly-priced acquisitions of general manager Ernie Accorsi has jelled. A locker room in which some veterans bristled at Coughlin's martinet bent has suddenly become a fun place to be. And as evidenced by the caution-to-the-wind play-calling late in the fourth quarter on Sunday, this is a team that has replaced the unhappiness of just a month ago with an intriguing dose of unpredictability.
Their public pronouncements aside Sunday evening, even some Giants veterans privately acknowledged they could not have considered, when the season commenced, that things could be going so swimmingly at this juncture. There was never widespread dissent in the New York locker room, nothing even close to mutiny, but some players obviously chafed under what they considered the Captain Queeg leanings of their new head coach.
Fortunately, what even the staunchest doubters have discovered during the current four-game winning streak is that Coughlin can coach.
On Sunday, in fact, it's pretty safe to suggest that Coughlin out-coached his mentor, Bill Parcells of the Cowboys. Much was made, coming into the game, of the fact Coughlin served last summer as one of Parcells' so-called "Tuna Helpers." Out of work in 2003, after the Jacksonville Jaguars dismissed him, Coughlin joined former Packers general manager Ron Wolf and onetime Patriots and Colorado head coach Chuck Fairbanks, all confidants of Parcells, as unpaid camp consultants.
But outside of a few tip-offs on terminology, and some hints as to what the Cowboys might do in certain offensive formations, Coughlin's inside knowledge on Dallas did not come much into play. Instead, he just made better calls than Parcells, particularly in the second half, when the Giants outscored the Cowboys 20-zip to overcome a 10-6 halftime deficit. And his players -- yeah, even some of the onetime skeptics -- made more plays.
The result was a New York locker room where the palpable momentum was such that a few guys even conceded they are sorry the bye will interrupt their hot streak. Another byproduct is that, even if the Giants aren't yet all true believers, they are now coming to realize that Coughlin knows a little bit about what he is doing.
"At the beginning, it's only natural, you're going to have some guys who question if this is the way things should be going," said Warner, whose individual play has been perhaps every bit as surprising as that of New York's overall performance. "I think anytime something is new, after you've been accustomed to doing it a certain way for a number of years, there is going to be some resistance. But then, if you start to win, it's like, 'Hey, wait a minute. There's something good going on here.' That's kind of the stage we're at right now."
Warner, who was supposed to be simply keeping the starting job warm until giving way to top overall draft choice Eli Manning, acquired in the landmark trade with San Diego, is also reforming many of the doubters who figured he was in his football dotage. Warner was more efficient than electrifying on Sunday, completing 18 of 33 for 217 yards, with one touchdown pass and no interceptions.
Barber rushed for 122 yards, a good chunk of that coming on a 58-yard run in the third period that set up Warner's three-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jeremy Shockey. And the do-it-all tailback also added five receptions for 76 yards. Kicker Steve Christie, who last week missed three field goals, was perfect on four tries, including a 47- and 51-yarders.
On defense, the Giants permitted Dallas a season-high 166 rushing yards, but only 16 first downs and 278 total net yards. They had one interception, three passes defensed, and got a superb performance from rookie strong safety Gibril Wilson, who has replaced the injured veteran Shaun Williams at the position. Mostly, however, the Giants defense came up big at big times, notably in stopping a pair of fourth-and-one plays.
As the locker room crowd thinned out, Barber acknowledged that, in training camp, he had to "prove myself to Coach Coughlin." Asked if the converse was true as well, the veteran smiled, and moved on to another query. But as the Giants exited here Sunday evening a pretty happy bunch, it was obvious the Coughlin influence is growing, as is the collective confidence of a team that has already equaled its 2003 victory total.
"It's amazing how good winning makes you feel about things," said cornerback Will Allen, who had five tackles and two passes defensed. "About everything."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.