By Steve Keating
EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey (Reuters) - The New York Giants stormed to an early lead then held on to beat the Dallas Cowboys 31-14 in the National Football League's season finale on Sunday to claim the NFC East crown and a place in the playoffs.
With the victory, the Giants (9-7) return to the post-season for the first time in three years, earning the number four seed and a home game against Atlanta Falcons (10-6) on January 8.
"NFL East champions, I won't get tired of hearing that," Giants coach Tom Coughlin told reporters.
"To be in a position where you are playing for this opportunity in the last three weeks of the season and able to determine your own destiny... to be NFC East champions is a very rewarding thing.
"But as we stated from day one, we wanted to win the division so we could have the direct route into the playoffs and that's what happened."
After a wild final day, the Giants and Cowboys had the spotlight to themselves for a primetime, winner-take-all showdown that had generated Super Bowl-like hype.
Meeting for the 100th time, the division rivals provided a nail-biting finish to the regular season as the Giants, powered by two of Eli Manning's three touchdown passes, jumped out to 21-0 halftime lead then fought off a second half fightback.
Dallas quarterback Tony Romo fired a pair of touchdown strikes to Laurent Robinson to cut the deficit to seven points early in the fourth quarter, but could not complete the comeback and missed the playoffs for the third time in four seasons.
"Eventually you run out of excuses," Dallas linebacker Keith Brooking said as the Cowboys stumbled down the home stretch, losing four of their last five. "This game is about players making plays and we didn't do that.
"It's tough, I think in times like this you really dig deep and do some soul-searching.
"Hopefully you learn from this and it makes you a better player. That's about the only thing you can take out of these situations."
Manning, who was named to the Pro Bowl last week, flashed his all-star credentials completing 24-of-33 passes for 346-yards in a masterful performance.
The game began in a driving rain but it could not dampen the party atmosphere, Manning hooking up with his big play wide receiver Victor Cruz on 74-yard touchdown and 7-0 first quarter lead.
Cruz, who has become Manning's favorite target, terrorized the Dallas secondary hauling in six passes for 178-yards.
"He just keeps doing it," Coughlin said. "I am cheering for him, doing cartwheels on the sidelines as he is running by.
"It was just a heck of a game and a heck of a season for the kid."
New York opened the second quarter with Ahmad Bradshaw scampering in from the five then Manning found his running back with a 10-yard touchdown pass taking a 21-0 lead into the break.
Romo and Robinson made things interesting for the capacity crowd of nearly 87,000 by connecting on two touchdowns.
However, a 28-yard Lawrence Tynes touchdown followed by a Manning four-yard pass to Hakeem Nicks made sure there would be no New Year's Day hangovers for Giants fans.
(Editing by John O'Brien)