EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Among the New York Giants' defensive linemen, the two guys who play on the outside, ends Michael Strahan and rising star Osi Umenyiora, receive most of the attention, and deservedly so. Strahan and Umenyiora got theirs Sunday against Dallas: three sacks between them. But when it comes to these types of games -- NFC East, Giants-Cowboys, December (read: cold) -- it's what's inside that really counts.
Rankings reflect an entire season's performance. They can also give false impressions. Look at the Giants' bottom-fourth ranking for defense through 12 weeks (24th) and you'd think New York was having problems on that side of the ball. Quite the contrary. The Giants' defense has been a problem for opponents, and it's been primarily because of a D-line that's playing as well as any, including the one in Chicago. Starting with a shutout win over Washington and through the next five weeks, there haven't been many defenses playing better ball than New York's.
And to be certain, the G-men have ballers not just at the end spots. If you don't know some of these names, learn them, because they'll be talking about them in the playoffs, to which the Giants, at 8-4, are on track after taking over the NFC East lead with a 17-10 win over Dallas: Kendrick Clancy, Kenderick Allen, Fred Robbins, Damane Duckett. The Cowboys offensive linemen might find themselves hearing them in their sleep the next few nights after the Giants' tackle rotation forced Dallas into a nightmarish offensive performance that produced just 10 points, 206 yards, and four turnovers.
But when your job description entails occupying blockers so that teammates can run free, you're not going to get much space in the papers. "It's a workman's position," Clancy said. "If you're looking for credit, go somewhere else. You need to be a quarterback."
Or get to the other team's QB at key moments. Clancy, a former Steelers reserve brought in as a free agent in the offseason, produced the play of the game on the Cowboys' first play of the third quarter. Clancy anticipated Drew Bledsoe's snap count, knifed through the gap between Dallas center Andre Gurode and guard Marco Rivera, and grabbed Bledsoe's left arm as he was about to hand off to Julius Jones. Fumble. Antonio Pierce picked it up, returned it 12 yards for a touchdown, and New York was up 17-0. That TD turned out to be the difference.
The game played out a lot differently than the Cowboys had hoped. Dallas runs to control the clock and set up the pass. But the Giants' defense held the Cowboys to 3 yards per rush (they came in averaging just 3.4, good for 29th in the league) and harassed Bledsoe (sacked four times) into the worst performance of his Cowboy career, 15 of 39 with two picks.
D-tackles in a system such as New York's aren't going to win any popularity contests or, for that matter, free trips to Hawaii in early February "unless you have some guys like Warren Sapp," Pierce said. "The guys who do dirty work, hold linemen up, fight double teams, hold up 600 pounds, and free up guys so I can make plays, those are the guys that get all the honor from me."
Justin Tuck, a backup end who moved inside on third down to give the Giants more athleticism, sacked Bledsoe in the second quarter, causing a fumble that Allen recovered. Robbins, who is starting in place of an injured William Joseph, had five tackles and a batted ball at the line of scrimmage. The Giants' line owned the line on a day when Eli Manning (27.9 rating) actually played worse than Bledsoe, and that's why New York is the sole proprietor of the territory known as the penthouse of the NFC East with four weeks remaining.
"Going into it," Clancy said, "we knew if we let them impose their will on us, we weren't going to win the game."
With Kansas City coming to town in two weeks and three of their last four away from the Meadowlands, where they are 1-3, the Giants are going to need more of this from their defense. They seem up to the challenge.
"Guys are really focusing on the little things," Pierce said. "And then it's 'want to.' It's attitude. Guys are flying to the ball. DBs are playing tighter coverage. In the beginning, we'd give up third and longs. Now, we're getting off the field. You get off the field, you look a lot better on defense."
Let's step off the field for a second. You'd think, the way he's got New York's defense playing, that coordinator Tim Lewis' chances at landing a head coaching gig in the offseason would be pretty good. We've seen this movie, or some version of it, before, haven't we? Sharp defensive coordinator for the New York Giants (Bill Belichick). Off limits to the media, and thus generally unknown, at the orders of the head coach (Bill Parcells). Players may not be in love with him (Lewis fell out of favor with the Steelers players at the end of a successful tenure in Pittsburgh) but they play for him and play well because they are as prepared as can be. No stone is left unturned. He's innovative, as in dropping Umenyiora into pass coverage on occasion in an attempt to confuse an offense consumed with blocking him. No one's saying Lewis is the next Belichick, but he's following a similar path.
"We draw up routes and match them up with the right defense," explained Alexander, who played for Lewis in Pittsburgh. "We go through so many types of [offensive] plays and we literally have to draw in each one, trying to figure out and our coach is going over it, 'you should be here, you should be here.' And then when we see them, we know where we're supposed to be, how to play each play, how to correlate things. 'This play and this play are similar, so I can play them the same way.' We draw up every play the opponent runs, and we literally go through every play. Sometimes if we've got certain personnel in the huddle and depending on the down and distance, we sometimes can anticipate what's coming in. It allows us to play fast and we're able to talk out routes before they snap the ball."
Said Alexander of Lewis, "And he's a hard-nosed guy, too. He knows how to get under your skin but he also knows how to get results."
As for the job ahead of Lewis and the Giants, a loss and New York would have been facing, in essence, a two-game deficit, having lost to Dallas earlier this year. But thanks to the Giants' Big D, it's their division to lose. Sunday proved that the Giants' defense can win games on its own. It was a 7-point game for the final 19 minutes, but New York came up with two picks and forced a pair of punts and didn't panic when Jay Feely missed another field goal.
Afterward Pierce was asked whether Sunday's effort was one of the great defensive performances he'd been a part of (albeit against a struggling Cowboys offense that clearly misses left tackle Flozell Adams and doesn't have a prayer of making the playoffs if it can't find a way to make more plays in the passing game).
"When it really mattered, yes," Pierce answered. "When you're talking about all the things that are on the line right now, for our defense to go out there and play dominant and physical for four straight quarters and at the end of the game still be out there and stop them, yes."
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.