EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) – The Dallas Cowboys needed a big win to stay in the playoff hunt and they got it with the big play in spoiling Steve Spagnuolo’s debut as New York interim coach and the return of quarterback Eli Manning to the Giants’ starting lineup.
Dak Prescott threw two of his three touchdown passes, including a go-ahead 20-yarder to Giants’ nemesis Jason Witten, and linebacker Sean Lee set up a touchdown run by Rod Smith as the Cowboys scored three times in a 4:41 span late in the fourth quarter to beat the still reeling Giants 30-10 on Sunday.
“To me, the biggest part of this game was the finish,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “That’s always a huge emphasis for us, finishing plays, finishing drives and ultimately finishing the game.”
The Cowboys (7-6) did just that in keeping their slim playoff hopes alive.
The biggest play might have been Prescott’s 54-yard third down pass play to Cole Beasley. Witten scored on the next play to break a 10-all tie with 7:38 to play and it seemed to take the air out of the Giants (2-11).
“We know what we got to do,” Beasley said. “We can’t play that way. We have to focus on Dallas Cowboy football, taking it one at a time. You can’t think ahead. We could win all of them and not get in.”
After a punt, Rod Smith scored on an 81-yard pass play on third down with 4:08 to play and he closed out the scoring with 2:57 to play with his run on a play that looked as if no one on the Giants wanted to tackle him.
“We knew we needed a play. Guys aren’t panicking,” Beasley said. “I wouldn’t say we were desperate. When you’re desperate, you start reaching a little bit, maybe start trying too hard. You have to stay within the system and stay within the game and keep playing and eventually have faith that those things will happen.”
Prescott, who was 20 of 30 for a career-high 332 yards also threw a 50-yard scoring pass to Dez Bryant as the Cowboys stayed in the playoff hunt with three games left in the regular season. Dan Bailey added a 21-yard field goal as the Cowboys finished with 454 yards.
Manning, who got a standing ovation taking the field, threw a 1-yard TD pass to Rhett Ellison late in the second quarter that gave New York a brief 10-3 lead. Aldrick Rosas had a 39-yard field goal. Manning finished 31 of 46 for 228 yards with a touchdown and two late interceptions.
“Nothing’s easy, but we hung in there and have played tough,” Manning said. “Dallas made a couple big plays, and we didn’t.”
The game capped a hectic week for the Giants that started Monday with the firing of second-year coach Ben McAdoo and general manager Jerry Reese and saw Spagnuolo promoted from defensive coordinator to interim coach. He coached the St. Louis Rams from 2009-11.
The moves came with the Giants spiraling out of control in a season where much was expected following their first playoff appearance since 2011.
Fans were also upset with the benching of Manning days earlier in a loss to Oakland, a decision that ended the two-time Super Bowl MVP’s streak of 210 consecutive starts.
“I’m really proud of the men in that locker room. I told them that,” Spagnuolo said. “After all we went through this week, I thought the way we came out and the way we played for three and a half quarters was something we could be proud of. We do have to figure out a way in the fourth quarter when it gets down to gut-wrenching time to make a play or two.”
Losing close games has been a theme for the Giants this season, and it happened again despite all the changes.
“We knew the situation that they were in,” Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul said. “We knew that they had to come and get this win to keep the run going for the playoffs and we just couldn’t execute and finish right.”
Bailey, who usually never misses a field goal against the Giants, had a 53-yarder hit the right upright in the second quarter and he was wide right from 50 in the third.
The first half ended 10-all with both teams having long opening drives that ended in field goals and then getting late touchdowns passes.
Manning found Ellison from a yard out to cap a 68-yard drive and Prescott drove the Cowboys 75 yards in four plays with Bryant breaking a tackle and scoring from 50.
Cowboys: at Oakland on Sunday night.
Giants: host Philadelphia on Sunday.