EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - There was panic and disharmony on one side, unsavory history on the other, big plays, big mistakes, even a big brawl as the first half ended.

Cowboys-Giants. What else?

"This is a heated rivalry,"

Giants defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka said yesterday after New York revived its season with a 31-24 victory over Dallas. "We see each other too often. It's almost like we're in the same city. And sometimes it boils over."

Beating the Cowboys for the second time this season, New York improved to 7-5 and added drama to its matchup with the Eagles next Sunday night at Giants Stadium. Avenging that lopsided loss (40-17) and winning a division title - which seemed so improbable as they lost five of six games over the last 2 months - is as likely as any other scenario.

The Cowboys, meanwhile, are 0-1 this month, with games against San Diego, New Orleans and the Eagles on the horizon. Oh, and did you know they are 15-27 in December games this decade, 25-38 in December since Jimmy Johnson was their coach?

Oh, you did . . .

"We don't care about December talk," said Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, who threw for 392 yards and three touchdowns - and still lost.

Yes, yes, enough of that.

To the fight.

It occurred on the last play of the second quarter after the Giants had seized a first half dominated by the Cowboys with a quick-strike drive and a big-play turnover, flipping a 10-0 Dallas lead into a 14-10 Giants lead over the last 2 minutes.

After Dallas kicker Nick Folk punched a 57-yard field-goal try short and wide, Giants end Justin Tuck appeared to be pushed down from behind by Dallas left tackle Flozell Adams. Tuck has been playing this season with a slight shoulder tear after Adams blatantly tripped him during the Giants' 33-31 victory in Week 2, and vowed the other day that he would have a lot to say to the Cowboys lineman.

Apparently, Flo had his fill in just a half.

"Just proves what kind of a dirtbag he is," said Tuck, who bounced up laughing - until he saw who did it. Once he did, shoving, pushing and a huge swell of huge bodies ensued.

"It takes a coward and some more words that I can't say right here to push a guy from the back when the play is dead," Tuck said.

Adams called Tuck insignificant - or words to that effect.

Some Giants, like Kiwanuka, said that event might have saved a season headed south.

"We were energized," he said. "There was no question we were going back out there and we were going to fight, we were going to grind."

This was not a victory of attrition, though. Dallas had the ball almost twice as long (38 minutes, 50 seconds) as New York did, but the Giants landed two huge second-half punches, both as improbable as the victory itself.

Less than 20 seconds after Dallas had regained the lead with an impressive third-quarter drive, Brandon Jacobs - the Giants' 264-pound running back - caught a short pass in the left flat from Eli Manning, shook one defender and ran down the left sideline 74 yards for a touchdown that gave New York a 21-17 lead.

"I've never seen him run that fast," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said.

After Lawrence Tynes' 23-yard field goal pushed it to 24-17 early in the fourth quarter, New York's defense held Dallas to a three-and-out and Domenic Hixon scored on a 79-yard punt return. The Giants' defense, which allowed 251 rushing yards in the first meeting between the teams, has been torched during their slide for its inconsistency and perceived indifference. Since beating Oakland, 44-7, to go 5-0, the Giants have allowed at least 24 points to all but one opponent, and have allowed more than 30 three times.

For this game, Coughlin replaced Osi Umenyiora as starting right end with Kiwanuka and started Chris Canty ahead of Fred Robbins. It was as much symbolic as it was tactical, as all played. Kiwanuka and Umenyiora even combined on the second-quarter fumble recovery that led to New York's second touchdown. Kiwanuka punched the ball loose from Marion Barber at midfield and Umenyiora scooped it and ran it to the Dallas 28.

"Somebody hands you the keys to a Ferrari, you step on the gas," Kiwanuka said, but for reasons both symbolical and tactical, that juncture might have altered the Giants' fate more than the two big plays or the fight.

"It was a crucial time of the game," Umenyiora said. "A huge momentum swing."

A tutor of Kiwanuka over the last couple of seasons, Umenyiora said he was proud of his pupil. The pupil said it was fitting, after the fuss over the switch this week, that the two would combine to make such a play.

"We are never going to give up," Umenyiora said. "That's what Giants do."

Not on Thanksgiving they didn't, when Denver beat them, 26-6. Not in Philadelphia on the first of November, either.

"We always play our best when the chips are stacked against us," Tuck said. "I don't know how we can change that so we can play that way all the time. This is just one game.

We've got a long way to go."

It seemed much longer around 4:45 p.m. yesterday, after the Eagles had thrashed Atlanta and Dallas was playing keep-away from their all-too familiar foes. Instead, Dallas will be answering questions this week about another December swoon, and the Giants and Eagles will be talking about second chances and second lives. Gloom and gladness are tossing the teams of the NFC East around again, tossing them around like a football. And we wouldn't want it any other way.

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