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Nothing to lose, everything to gain

As they walked off the field Sunday night, the New York Giants had defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs dropping their chins and hanging their heads. It wasn't that they were ashamed or disappointed. It was they did not have enough strength left in their bodies to hold up their helmets anymore.

"I'm tired as hell," linebacker Antonio Pierce said. "I've never been this tired."

The Giants' defense spent 36 minutes and 30 seconds on the field at Texas Stadium on Sunday. They were ravaged by a 20-play drive. They were exhausted by a 14-play drive. But somehow, the more breathless they became, the more inspired they played. They found a second wind, then a third, then a fourth. And with 16 seconds left, and half of them bent over at the waist, they forced the interception that provided relief.

Tony Romo threw it for Dallas. R.W. McQuarters picked it for New York. The Giants beat the Dallas Cowboys, 21-17, winning a date in Green Bay next Sunday for the NFC Championship. But first, they get a few minutes to rest. "I just had so much energy and excitement during the game that I didn't get tired," defensive end Justin Tuck said. "But when it ended, the exhaustion came. I really don't want to get up right now."

This game was defined by the Giants' tireless defense, which allowed only three points in the second half; quarterback Eli Manning, who has now advanced farther in this year's playoffs than his famous big brother, Peyton; and coach Tom Coughlin, whose vindication finally appears complete. But Terrell Owens and Romo still managed to make it about them.

More specifically, it was about Cabo. No one suggested that Romo's Mexican getaway with Jessica Simpson last week had anything to do with his performance Sunday -- 18 of 36 for 201 yards -- but Owens still delivered a weepy address in support of his quarterback. "You can point the finger at him and talk about the vacation," Owens said. "But if you do that, it's unfair. It's really unfair. It's my teammate. It's my quarterback."

As Owens spoke, he cried behind his sunglasses and sniffled into the microphone. It was his Hillary Clinton moment. But he lost some credibility when he added: "I've always had good relationships with my quarterbacks. I've always had my quarterbacks' back."

That, of course, might come as a surprise to Jeff Garcia and Donovan McNabb.

Owens made more of an impact after the game than during it. Recovered from a high-ankle sprain, he caught only four passes for 49 yards and Romo did not look for him in the final seconds. Asked about his decision-making -- Cabo included -- Romo said: "I don't live with regrets. I'm content in my own skin."

For the second year in a row, the Cowboys' season ended in tears. Last January, Romo bobbled the snap on a potential game-winning field goal attempt in Seattle and cried afterward. This January, Romo threw the interception to McQuarters, and Owens cried afterward. The Giants expressed no sympathy. "We've got butter for their popcorn," Pierce said.

Dallas will not feel like eating for a while. The Cowboys won 13 games this season, beat the Giants twice and captured the No. 1 seed in the NFC this season. Looking at the numbers, they were a lock. But looking at the tape, they were vulnerable. Dallas had not played up to its potential in about a month, stumbling toward the playoffs.

For the most part, this playoff weekend was a clinic in offensive efficiency. The Packers, Patriots and Chargers all won basically because they refused to punt the ball. Through the first half, the Giants-Cowboys game was more of the same. But midway through the third quarter, the Giants recognized that defense can still win in this league.

The Giants pressured Romo into an interception, an intentional grounding call and some errant passes. At one point in the fourth quarter, Romo was screaming at his offensive line. Manning, on the other hand, was mellow. He threw only 18 passes -- half as many as Romo -- completing 12 of them. He had two touchdowns and no interceptions.

While Dallas got away from running back Marion Barber (101 yards in the first half, only 28 in the second), the Giants continued to feed running backs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw. Jacobs and Bradshaw did not bust any big gains, but they kept the clock ticking and kept Manning in manageable down-and-distance situations.

It is hard to believe that anybody, even in the Manning family, would have predicted this outcome: Peyton is going home and Eli is moving on. Under Eli's direction, the Giants have won 10 of 11 road games, prompting hope they can beat Green Bay at Lambeau Field next Sunday and become a surprise entry in the Super Bowl.

The Giants will spend the week preparing for Brett Favre and talking about why they discarded Ryan Grant. Traded by the Giants before the season for an undisclosed draft pick, Grant has emerged as a star tailback in Green Bay. The Giants might now be able to find a spot for Grant in their backfield, but they are fine as constructed.

"We'll be an underdog, and we'll be the worst team in NFC Championship Game history," guard Chris Snee said. "But we'll be happy about it."

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