Oh What A Night

114 yards from scrimmage the first time around last year against them and then another 124 the second time.

"Any place he gets in space, he's dangerous," said Parcells of Barber, the guy he claims to be one of the top "four or five players in the league."

And it's not just Barber, but fast-improving quarterback Eli Manning and wide receivers Amani Toomer and Plaxico Burress and tight end Jeremy Shockey - the three guys who have been on the receiving end of nine of Manning's 11 touchdown passes.

Yeah, a big test.

This game, though, which promises to become the most-watched ESPN game if Chicago at Arizona last Monday night earned that distinction, deals with more than the Cowboys' identity crisis. There are some tangible reasons ballooning this game's importance.

Not only does the winner go to 4-2, meaning the Cowboys would have a two-game winning streak or the Giants would have a three-game winning streak, but of all things, now the winner also takes over the NFC East lead after the Philadelphia Eagles dropped a 23-21 decision Sunday to Tampa Bay when Matt Bryant hit a 62-yard game-winning field goal with four seconds remaining.

Imagine that, after all that hand-wringing following the Cowboys' 38-24 emotional loss in Philly, the Eagles (4-3) now are saddled with a two-game losing streak and the Cowboys, with a win Monday night, would be riding a two-game winning streak and leading the NFC East by a half-game.

Plus, with this NFC East race figuring to finish tiebreaker tight, the Cowboys first must hold serve at home in a division game, and second, can't afford to drop to 1-2 in division games, which would mean the Giants would speed off to 3-0 after the first round and only having to play Washington on the road the second time around.

There's more, too, these two teams embarking off on distinctly different paths of travel afterward: The Giants' next three games are at home while the Cowboys have the dreaded three-game road trip - Carolina, Washington, Arizona - something they have not had to deal with since late in the 1992 season. If they are not careful, they could lose touch with the Giants by time they face the bottom slice of this Manning Brothers sandwich, Indianapolis to come snooping around Texas Stadium on Nov. 19.

Yep, big game Monday night, indeed.

"The tension was high," Cowboys quarterback Drew Bledsoe said in reference to the week following the Philadelphia game, "because we lost, and I don't know that the tension isn't high this week. I don't think anybody is taking their foot off the gas pedal."

Certainly not Parcells. With this being a Monday night game, adding an extra day to the week, Giants head coach Tom Coughlin gave his team an extra day off. Parcells had the Cowboys practice an extra day.

He also juggled his 53-man roster and practice squad, along with having tossed his hat into the trade market to no avail before Tuesday's deadline. Parcells is grinding, just the way he hopes his team will grind Monday night.

Oh, and how about this? With a game loaded with so much importance, it just so happens to be one for Monday Night Football, and judging from the TV ratings the past few weeks, that the NFL moved its primetime presentation from Monday to Sunday night MNF doesn't seem to have lost any of its previous luster.

ESPN's pre-game show originating out front Texas Stadium by the Tom Landry statue. The Dallas Cowboys Radio Network pre-game show out front, too. Nightfall creeping closer to kickoff with Daylight Savings Time about to expire. Nothing like that big-game buzz at The TS.

Oh what a night.

"I get excited for games like this the same way I did in high school," Bledsoe said with a certain gleam in his eye. "I get juiced."

That's good. The Cowboys will need all the juice they can squeeze out for this game, and Parcells seems convinced his team understands the importance and ramifications of this game with the Giants.

"They already know," said Parcells, reassuring anyone who might mistakenly be thinking this game is sneaking up on the Cowboys. "If you're not ready to play this game, you need a saliva test . . . you're dead."

Man, can't wait . . . and for the Cowboys

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