EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Standing in the end zone awaiting the kickoff, the Giants’ Dwayne Harris sensed the tension enveloping MetLife Stadium on Sunday. He also understood the importance of the next several seconds.
There were roughly seven minutes remaining in the game. Harris looked over at the euphoria on the sideline of the Dallas Cowboys, who had just tied a game the Giants had led for most of the second half.
Harris, a free agent who signed with the Giants in March after four seasons in Dallas, knew most of the faces on the Cowboys’ bench.
“You could feel it was a big moment in the game,” Harris said. “They had just come back on us. They probably felt like they had the momentum.”
Inside the stadium, the home crowd, roaring and on its feet only minutes earlier, had fallen silent, with most fans slumped in their seats. They knew the Giants’ history of fourth-quarter collapses this season.
But Harris was brought to the Giants to improve their return game, and as the Dallas kick spun toward him, he imagined a long dash through a cavalcade of Cowboys defenders. Harris caught the football at the goal line, burst straight up the middle, made one cut to his right and then sprinted untouched for the winning touchdown in the Giants’ 27-20 victory.
The Giants, whose special teams were most likely the weakest element of the past two losing seasons, had won a game on a kickoff return — the team’s first since 2012. And it came at a pivotal time. The Giants (4-3) did not want to take a two-game losing streak into November. The Giants’ next three games are at New Orleans, at Tampa Bay and at home against the New England Patriots.
“I beat my old team, but mostly I gave my new team a lift when it really needed it,” Harris said. “You know, a return can really put a charge into the game.”
None of the smiling faces in the Giants’ locker room were disagreeing.
“Dallas had just scored, and before anyone had even digested that, there was Dwayne taking that kick right back, which was huge,” quarterback Eli Manning said. “You know, sometimes you have to win games in all kinds of ways.”
The Giants won in all kinds of improbable ways on Sunday. The Giants’ defense has been among the league’s worst against the pass throughout the season. But against Dallas (2-4), the Giants stormed back from a halftime deficit by intercepting Cowboys quarterback Matt Cassel three times.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the Giants cornerback who twice intercepted Cassel, said it was payback for the Giants’ season-opening defeat to the Cowboys, when poor decisions late in the game cost the Giants an almost certain victory.
“We should have won that first game, so this was big to get a win from them this time,” Rodgers-Cromartie said.
Rodgers-Cromartie’s first interception proved to be a turning point. With the Giants trailing by 3 points at the half, their defense had been mauled by the Dallas running game, which ended up gaining 233 yards.
The Giants were much happier when Cassel, who was making his first start this year after the Cowboys benched Brandon Weeden, dropped back to pass, especially at 11 minutes 34 seconds of the third quarter, when Cassel attempted a risky throw to wide receiver Terrance Williams, who had run a deep square-out route.
The pass had to travel a long way across the field, which allowed Rodgers-Cromartie plenty of time to zero in on it. The pass was also off line and short, but Rodgers-Cromartie had broken early toward it.
“I knew I could get that all the way,” Rodgers-Cromartie later said.
Rodgers-Cromartie was almost in a full sprint when he snatched the football out of the air and easily dashed the remaining 58 yards to the end zone to give the Giants a 17-13 lead.
It was Rodgers-Cromartie’s sixth career interception return for a touchdown.
On the Cowboys’ next drive, Cassel attempted another ill-advised pass, lofting a long sideline throw into double coverage. Cassel’s pass wobbled and hung in the air, and Giants safety Brandon Meriweather intercepted it at the Giants’ 1-yard line.
Manning, who completed 13 of 24 passes for 170 yards without an interception, quickly threw down the right sideline for wide receiver Rueben Randle. With the Cowboys effectively bottling up Odell Beckham Jr., who had four receptions for 35 yards, Randle did his best Beckham impersonation, sticking out his right hand to make a spectacular one-handed catch for a 44-yard gain.
Five plays later, Josh Brown kicked a 34-yard field goal for a 20-13 Giants lead with 3:23 left in the third.
Early in the fourth quarter, Cassel was intercepted by Rodgers-Cromartie again. This time, Rodgers-Cromartie baited Cassel, hanging back to make it appear that Cassel could complete a pass over the middle.
“I knew I had a real good chance at that one, too,” Rodgers-Cromartie said.
That turnover did not lead to points, but it kept the Cowboys’ offense off the field for several minutes, which let a beleaguered Giants defense gain some valuable rest.
But in the fourth quarter, the Cowboys took over at their 20-yard line and marched into Giants territory, where a circus catch in the end zone would allow the Cowboys to tie the game.
On a first down from the Giants’ 25-yard line, Cassel was chased out of the pocket. On the run, he pointed at wide receiver Devin Street, directing him toward the right corner of the end zone.
With Giants defensive end George Selvie about to flatten him, Cassel threw the football over the heads of several Giants defensive backs. Street reached high above his head, corralling the football with his fingertips as he simultaneously touched his feet on the ground inches from the sideline for the touchdown reception that tied the game, 20-20, with 7:25 to play.
That is when Harris trotted out for the ensuing kickoff.
Afterward, middle linebacker Jon Beason was not apologizing for the defense’s troubles against the run.
“Stats can mean all kinds of things, but you have to have perspective,” Beason said. “In the end, it’s not about how many yards you give up, it’s about how many points you give up. We got three takeaways and made some stops when we had to.”
Dallas had an extended drive after Harris’s kickoff return and reached the Giants’ 30-yard line, but they ultimately turned the ball over on downs.
Giants Coach Tom Coughlin was happy that his team’s record against its N.F.C. East rivals was now 2-2, but he nonetheless recognized the shortcomings of the Giants’ performance. Yet he clung to the big picture.
“We won,” Coughlin said. “We’re gritty and scrappy, and we battle. I like that.”