By Larry Fine
EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey (Reuters) - The Dallas Cowboys stood tall at the finish, quieting a desperate New York Giants team with a game-winning drive at frigid MetLife Stadium on Sunday to grab a share of the NFC East lead.
The Cowboys, coming off a bye week following a lopsided loss to New Orleans, answered New York's touchdown and two-point conversion that tied the score at 21-21 by marching from their own 20 to set up a game-winning, 35-yard field goal as time expired.
Dallas head coach Jason Garrett said the deadly efficient drive directed by quarterback Tony Romo in bitter cold was a statement moment for his Cowboys.
The 24-21 victory effectively made it a two-horse race in the division as Dallas tied the Philadelphia Eagles at 6-5 by snapping the Giants' four-game winning streak following an 0-6 start and leaving New York at 4-7 with five games left.
"It was a great drive," said Garrett. "That's really when you separate yourself as a quarterback, as an offensive football team, as a team in general, when you go down and you're able to make those drives in critical moments."
Romo converted three crucial third-down plays during the final drive after struggling in the icy wind, hitting Dez Bryant twice and then Cole Beasley on a third-and-10 to set up the game-winning kick by Dan Bailey.
"The conditions were not easy today. It was cold, it was windy, people had a hard time holding the football," Garrett said.
"But in the critical moments in this game .... our quarterback stepped up and did a helluva job. We made the plays when we needed to make them."
Giants coach Tom Coughlin said his defense had bottled up Romo until that last drive.
"We had them in outstanding position there a couple of times, third-and-10," bemoaned Coughlin. "We felt like we obviously had a chance and should have won, but we didn't. Credit where credit is due."
Dallas had run out to a 21-6 lead midway through the third quarter after turning a fumble by receiver Victor Cruz into a 50-yard touchdown in the first quarter and holding New York to field goals twice after they got first downs inside the 10.
But the hard-running Giants, who gained 202 yards on the ground, battled back with two touchdowns that sent the crowd of over 80,000 into a frenzy.
A Giants victory would have lifted the team within a game of the division lead and made them serious contenders for the playoffs. Some New York players had boldly predicted a win over Dallas.
Romo said the contest had the feel of a playoff game.
"I think everybody understood how important this football game was for both teams," said the Dallas quarterback, who had come under fire in the past for mistakes late in games that cost the Cowboys.
"They had won four games in a row to put themselves back in position...you could tell by their words they were confident.
"That's what makes the game great. You got to get out and play the football game. Throughout all the talk, you just gotta go play, and the better team will win. That's what usually happens in the NFL."
Besides silencing the hopeful Giants, Dallas also won a measure of revenge for losing the NFC East title to New York on New Year's Day 2012 in the regular season finale. The Giants went on to win the Super Bowl.
"It's a tough environment, against a team who felt their season was on the line in this game," said Romo. "We understood it was a playoff-like game. Very similar feeling to the win-or- go-home game a couple of years ago.
"I was proud of the guys' effort and commitment."
(Reporting by Larry Fine, Editing by Gene Cherry)