IRVING, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson called yesterday's victory over the Super Bowl champion New York Giants a step.
The Cowboys rallied with an 84-yard touchdown drive, which ended with a 23-yard pass from Troy Aikman to Michael Irvin with 2 minutes, 13 seconds remaining, to beat New York, 21-16, for the first time since 1987. Issiac Holt's end-zone interception with 1:11 left sealed the victory in front of 64,010 -- the largest crowd at Texas Stadium since 1984.
A step? How about a Giant step?
"This was a psychological hurdle we had to overcome," Cowboys linebacker Jack Del Rio said. "It was at home, it was a division game and it was the Giants. This showed us we can beat anybody we play. We can now play at that level. We're legitimate. We believe in each other."
It was a game both teams needed to win. A loss would have dropped the Cowboys to 2-3 with five of their next seven games on the road. Instead they are 3-2, and the Giants are fighting for survival at 2-3.
"We dug ourselves into a hole," Giants coach Ray Handley said. "Now, we need some help to get back up there. I told the team we could lose three games and still go to the Super Bowl. But that might have fallen on deaf ears."
The Giants rallied for 13 consecutive points in the second half to erase a 14-3 Dallas lead. Two field goals by Matt Bahr and a 19-yard touchdown reception by Stephen Baker gave the Giants a 16-14 edge with 5:31 remaining.
"We all said let's not leave it to a kicker -- let's win it now," Cowboys guard John Gesek said.
The winning drive had a rocky start when Irvin dropped a first-down pass. But Aikman came right back with a 13-yard completion to Alexander Wright and a 32-yarder to Irvin. That moved the Cowboys to the Giants' 41.
Then on third-and-three, Aikman found tight end Jay Novacek on a quick out pattern for 13 yards. After Emmitt Smith was thrown for a 2-yard loss, Aikman hit Irvin on a 23-yard post pattern against Mark Collins, New York's best coverage cornerback, for the touchdown.
Collins appeared to have Irvin wrapped up at the 3-yard line, but Irvin fought his way into the end zone. That gave the Cowboys the lead, but not the victory.
Quarterback Jeff Hostetler brought the Giants back in a hurry. Completions to Ed McCaffery (26 yards) and Odessa Turner (11 and 13 yards) moved the Giants to the Cowboys' 30 with 1:28 remaining.
Hostetler went for the end zone on a pass to Baker streaking down the right side, only to have cornerback Holt steal it with an over-the-shoulder interception.
It was the second big play in the second half by the embattled Cowboys secondary. On New York's first play of the half, rookie fullback Jarrod Bunch caught a swing pass from Hostetler. But safety Ray Horton swiped the ball from him as he was going down and returned the fumble 20 yards for a touchdown. That made the score 14-3.
"We showed we've got some guys who can make plays," Johnson said. "If you're going to beat a team like the New York Giants, you've got to have some playmakers both on offense and defense."
There were playmakers all over the field for the Cowboys. James Washington stripped Lewis Tillman of the ball at the Cowboys' 5 on New York's first possession, and it was recovered by cornerback Larry Brown.
The Giants marched to the Cowboys' 6 early in the third quarter, but on third-and-one, defensive end Jim Jeffcoat crashed through the left side and stacked up Rodney Hampton for a 5-yard loss. That forced the Giants to settle for a field goal.
In the fourth quarter, the Giants advanced to the Cowboys' 3. But on third-and-two, Tony Tolbert stopped Ottis Anderson for no gain. That forced the Giants to settle for another field goal.
There were just as many heroes on offense. Aikman completed 20 of 27 passes for 277 yards. He spread the ball around to 10 receivers but went most often to his chief playmaker, Irvin, who caught six passes for 91 yards. Smith added 67 yards rushing and a touchdown.
Plan B free agent Alan Veingrad stepped in at left tackle and limited Lawrence Taylor to one sack after Mark Tuinei suffered a groin injury on the opening series.
"We came into the game confident we could win," Cowboys safety Bill Bates said. "It may be a surprise to a lot of people. But to the people on this team -- the guys who matter -- it's no surprise at all that we won this game."