EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- For once, the New York Giants' offense didn't have to manufacture a last-minute comeback. Instead, their defense stopped one by Dallas.
The Giants built a 17-0 lead Sunday and then hung on to beat the Cowboys 17-10 to take sole possession of first place in the NFC East.
In four games this season, New York (8-4) has rallied from deficits late in the fourth quarter behind the timely passing of Eli Manning. With the second-year quarterback struggling Sunday, the Giants relied on a defense that produced four sacks, two interceptions and two fumbles and pressured Drew Bledsoe into a 15-for-39 performance.
Antonio Pierce returned one of the fumbles for a 12-yard touchdown on the first play of the second half to give New York a 17-0 lead. Defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy forced the fumble when he got into the backfield a split second after Bledsoe received the snap and attempted to hand off to Julius Jones.
The ball bounced out of the pile right into Pierce's hands and the middle linebacker ran into the end zone untouched.
"I didn't know he was in the end zone," Clancy said. "I didn't know the ball was fumbled or if he was just running. I saw it when I looked at the replay up on the screen."
Bledsoe had a different take on Clancy's play.
"It seemed like he was offside," he said. "He jumped the snap count pretty good. He almost took the handoff from me."
The play loomed huge when Dallas (7-5) closed within a touchdown in the third quarter on a 34-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff and a 7-yard touchdown pass from Bledsoe to Terry Glenn.
But unlike in earlier losses to Dallas, Minnesota and Seattle, New York's defense held fast in the final minutes. Safety Gibril Wilson tipped Bledsoe's pass intended for Keyshawn Johnson and Brent Alexander intercepted with 1:47 left. Dallas got the ball back once more but couldn't move past the Giants' 44 at the final whistle.
"We felt like if they went down and scored on our defense, we lost the game," said linebacker Carlos Emmons. "I don't care what else happened."
The Giants survived another missed field goal by Jay Feely, who a week earlier blew three potential game-winning kicks in a 24-21 overtime loss at Seattle.
On Sunday, Feely clanged a 33-yard attempt off the upright with 5:18 left that would have given the Giants a 20-10 lead and some breathing room.
New York also won despite a shaky performance from Manning, who was 12-for-31 for 152 yards and was intercepted twice by Dallas cornerback Aaron Glenn, filling in for the injured Anthony Henry. Tiki Barber gained 115 yards on 30 carries for the Giants.
The Cowboys face an uphill battle in the division race with games left against Kansas City at home, at Washington and Carolina before closing at home against St. Louis. They can take solace in the fact three of New York's final four games are on the road, and two are against division rivals Philadelphia and Washington.
"There's a month of football to go," said Dallas coach Bill Parcells. "To be judgmental now with just the one-game separation would be premature. If you look at this like it's a disaster, then that's what it will turn out to be. If we look at it like we can bounce back, then that's probably what will happen."
- Feely received a huge cheer from the crowd when he kicked the extra point after Brandon Jacobs' 1-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
- Michael Strahan had two sacks to give him 127 1/2 for his career, moving him one sack past Derrick Thomas and into 10th place on the NFL's all-time list.
- Pierce's touchdown was his second as a pro. With Washington last December, he returned an interception off Ken Dorsey 78 yards for a score against San Francisco.
- Manning's streak of consecutive games throwing a touchdown pass ended at 12. It had been the NFL's longest active streak.
- The teams split the season series for the first time since 2001. The Giants swept in 2002 and 2004 and the Cowboys swept in 2003.