IRVING, Texas - The soap opera that is the Dallas Cowboys' offense gets all the attention. The defense, however, is keeping them in the playoff hunt.

DeMarcus Ware added three sacks to his NFL-leading total and the Cowboys took down Eli Manning eight times on their way to a crucial, 20-8 victory last night in a game where all eyes were otherwise on Tony Romo, Terrell Owens and Jason Witten.

With everyone watching to see how Romo would appease the two main rivals for his offensive affection, Terrell Owens and Jason Witten, he pulled a fast one by tossing touchdowns to third receiver Patrick Crayton and seldom thrown-to fullback Deon Anderson. Then, with 2:16 left and Dallas trying to manage the clock, rookie Tashard Choice broke off a victory-sealing, 38-yard touchdown run.

Finally, the Cowboys could exhale. After a late loss in Pittsburgh and a week of locker-room turmoil, Dallas (9-5) was back in control of its wild-card chances.

"It wasn't a pretty win but we got it done," Owens said.

The Cowboys are guaranteed a playoff spot by winning their last two games, but it won't be easy. Baltimore comes to Texas Stadium on Saturday night, then Dallas closes at the Eagles.

The Giants (11-3) locked up the NFC East title when Dallas lost last Sunday, but suddenly things aren't going so well for the reigning Super Bowl champions.

New York has lost consecutive games for the first time since starting 0-2 last season, with both losses coming since star receiver Plaxico Burress shot himself and was suspended by the team. This one featured its fewest points of the season and its first regular-season game without a touchdown since November 2004.

A win would have given the Giants a first-round bye and breathing room in the race for the No. 1 playoff seed. Instead, they head home tied with Carolina for the top spot heading into their matchup with the Panthers next Sunday night at the Meadowlands.

Romo was 20-of-30 for 244 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He was sacked four times, including back-to-back plays at the end of the first quarter that left him wincing in pain. He didn't miss a snap, but he wasn't moving as well as he usually does.

Manning was 18-for-34 for 191 yards with two interceptions. In two games against Dallas, he was sacked 12 times; he's been sacked only 11 times in the other 12 games combined. *