EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Not many Dallas Cowboys players were even paying scant attention to football the last time Bill Parcells coached a Super Bowl champion. But there were a lot of Cowboys in a happy visitors locker room Sunday evening who somehow knew that in both of Parcells' prior championship seasons, 1986 and 1990 with the New York Giants, he changed kickers midway through the schedule.
No one was ready yet to view what transpired here Sunday as an omen. But the fact that Parcells' midweek kicker gamble paid off so handsomely when Martin Gramatica nailed a 46-yarder with one second remaining to give Dallas a 23-20 win over the Giants might portend that this could indeed be a special year for the Cowboys.
"We've been in these kinds of games before and, at least since I've been here, it seems we've found a way to lose them," linebacker Bradie James said after Gramatica's third field goal of the game nudged Dallas past the faltering Giants and into a two-game lead in the NFC East. "To me, it says that this team has really matured. And it says that Bill is looking pretty good now, isn't he?"
Parcells is looking good, for sure, after sacrificing a $2.5 million signing bonus by releasing kicker Mike Vanderjagt and replacing him with Gramatica, who had converted just one field goal since '04. The Cowboys, though, are looking even better.
At 8-4, Dallas is tied for the second-best record in the NFC and arguably playing the most consistently of anyone in the conference. Winners of four straight games (and 5-1 since Tony Romo replaced Drew Bledsoe as starting quarterback), the Cowboys continue to serve notice that they could be a viable force in the playoffs.
The Giants, on the other hand, must scramble to land a wild-card spot after a fourth straight loss that left many questioning the coaching staff's offensive play calling and critical time management decisions. Although ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported Sunday morning that coach Tom Coughlin's job status is not an issue with ownership, the loss certainly didn't enhance his stability.
New York had 14 snaps in the red zone and managed two touchdowns and two field goals, but should have scored more. Both field goals came on possessions that reached the Dallas 4-yard line. But in many ways, the Giants' offense actually accomplished many of its goals. The unit controlled tempo, got tailback Tiki Barber (23 carries for 90 yards and five catches for 53 yards) and tight end Jeremy Shockey (six receptions, 65 yards) involved in the flow early, and got a solid performance from quarterback Eli Manning.
After a six-game slump in which he completed just 51.6 percent of his passes and threw for more than 200 yards just once, Manning completed 24 of 36 passes for 270 yards, with two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 107.4 efficiency rating. While Romo couldn't match those numbers, he made plays when the Cowboys most needed them, and he and Gramatica proved a winning combination.
"It wasn't always pretty and, sure, there were some things I wished I had back and could do again," Romo said. "But it was a division game, on the road, with a chance to open up some breathing room between us and the people chasing us. So, man, we'll take it. It's really a big confidence builder for us."
Reflective of the mounting confidence the Cowboys and even a grudging Parcells seem to possess in their young quarterback was the number of times Romo operated from an empty formation (no one else in the backfield). Unofficially, the Cowboys deployed the empty look on 13 snaps and Romo completed 10 of 13 passes for 149 yards, with one interception.
On a fourth-quarter series that culminated in a 7-yard touchdown blast off the right side by tailback Marion Barber, the Cowboys used the empty formation on three straight third-and-long plays, and Romo converted all of them, with completions of 11, 11 and 10 yards. Then, after the Giants displayed some life, rallying to tie the score at 20 on Manning's 7-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress with just 1:06 remaining, Romo again authored a huge play from the empty set.
On first-and-10 from the Dallas 32-yard line, Romo avoided an inside rush by Giants defensive tackle William Joseph, got slightly outside the containment to the left, and gunned a 42-yard completion to tight end Jason Witten, who was being trailed by middle linebacker Antonio Pierce in the Giants' Cover 2 scheme.
The pass was perfectly thrown, just out of the reach of Pierce and before free safety Will Demps could get across to make a play on the ball.
"That play was pretty [indicative] of what [Romo] does for us," Witten said. "He isn't the fastest guy around, not a very good runner to tell the truth, but he can keep plays alive. He just has a knack for being able to get outside the rush. And when he sees something down the field, he's cold-blooded, man. He'll put it up and take a chance, because he trusts that we're going to make a play."
Watching Parcells on the sideline Sunday, there were times one questioned just how much trust he had in his new field goal kicker. Given his experience with Vanderjagt, and his admission that his club's play calling was affected by the kicker's shaky performances, Parcells looked pained every time he sent Gramatica onto the field.
For Gramatica, who had converted his only previous field goal try this season, a 20-yarder when he filled in for injured Indianapolis kicker Adam Vinatieri, the day began wide right when he didn't get much foot into a 44-yard attempt on the game's opening possession. But then he converted a 41-yarder in the second quarter and a 35-yard kick late in the third quarter to boost everyone's morale, including his own.
On the game-winner, Parcells never wavered in sending Gramatica onto the field, and neither did Gramatica's kick. The 46-yard mortar started down the middle and didn't wiggle an inch either way.
"The guys here welcomed me and made me feel at home right away," said Gramatica, whose best seasons came with the Tampa Bay Bucs. "It's pretty hard to believe right now. I've just been praying to God for another chance. It's hard sometimes in the league, once you've bounced around and maybe picked up some labels, to get another chance. So I'm just trying to take advantage of this opportunity."
It was Gramatica's first multi-field goal game since Oct. 24, 2004, the sixth game-winning kick of his career and his first three-field goal performance since Dec. 14, 2003. It also marked his first time kicking in the devilish, swirling winds of Giants Stadium.
Asked if he could imagine a more satisfying conversion, Gramatica smiled, and noted that a game-winner in a Super Bowl might qualify as such. With Parcells' track record on switching kickers in midseason, who knows what might happen?
"All I know is that we're No. 1 in the division," said James, who had another strong game with eight tackles. "And we plan on staying a little lonely in that top spot. And on going a little bit higher, too, if we can."
Len Paquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.