IRVING, Texas (AP) – The Dallas Cowboys know Drew Bledsoe needs all the time he can get to look downfield, pick a receiver and make the right throw.

The problem is getting him those precious extra seconds.

Against Washington, Tennessee and Houston, Bledsoe was comfortable enough in the pocket that he threw just one interception. He was sacked a total of three times. And Dallas won them all.

Bledsoe didn’t have as much time against Jacksonville and Philadelphia – and the results were ugly. The Jaguars picked him off three times and sacked him twice, then the Eagles topped that with three interceptions, seven sacks and a pair of lost fumbles. Not surprisingly, the Cowboys lost both.

Now Bledsoe and his blockers are bracing for another challenge Monday night -the New York Giants, who boast a defense that just sacked Michael Vick seven times. If the Giants (3-2) got to the slithery Vick seven times, what will they do to the, uh, non-slithery Bledsoe?

As a point of reference, consider what they did to him last December: Four sacks, two interceptions and two fumbles, plus one of the lowest completion percentages of his career and a passer rating also near the bottom. New York won the game, which was for first-place in the NFC East, and wound up winning the division; Dallas wound up missing the playoffs.

The good news for Bledsoe is that he has an upgraded set of tackles protecting him. The bad news is that the Giants still have Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora.

, and they’re joined by Fred Robbins, Carlos Emmons and Barry Cofield, who were all in on multiple sacks against Vick.

Plus, New York’s coaches have studied the blueprint drawn up by the Eagles.

“I’m sure they’ll come after us more because they’ll feel like we didn’t handle it very well,” Bledsoe said. “We can’t sit back there all day. They are great pass rushers and we’ll have to account for them, for sure.”

Coach Bill Parcells’ mantra ever since the Philadelphia game has been no turnovers. His secondary goal this week is for Bledsoe to keep drives going so NFL rushing leader Tiki Barber and the rest of New York’s offense stay on the sideline.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Bledsoe said.

For an October game, this one is significant for both teams.

Going into Sunday’s games, Dallas and New York were tied for second in the division, a half-game behind Philadelphia.

To the Cowboys, this starts a pivotal chunk of their season. Their next three games are on the road, followed by a return home to face Indianapolis. Then the Thanksgiving Day game is four days after that.

The Giants have won two straight and three of four, starting with a tremendous comeback victory in overtime on the road against Philadelphia. Having victories over the Cowboys and Eagles would be a big boost, specially with the chance that NFC East clubs end up pinning so many losses on each other that the division can’t produce a wild-card team.

“If you win the division, of course you’re in. Anything outside of that, there is no guarantee,” Strahan said. “That’s our focus. First and foremost, win our division, and let everything fall into place after that.”

Sacks also are on Strahan’s mind – or, rather, his lack of them.

He has one all season, a number that feels even lonelier because he is two shy of tying Lawrence Taylor’s club record of 1321/2. The mark carries an asterisk because Taylor had 91/2 more as a rookie the season before sacks became an official statistic, but it’s still a big deal for the owner of the NFL’s single-season record.

“I’d love to get it behind me (because) that would mean I’ve gotten more sacks this year,” said Strahan, who has gotten five sacks against Bledsoe. “I’ve been close and no cigar, hitting the quarterback and all that stuff. I just haven’t gotten them on the ground before they’ve thrown the ball.”

Bledsoe certainly has plenty of options where to throw, including one New York hasn’t seen in a Dallas uniform: Terrell Owens.

Coming off a three-touchdown game, T.O. is eager to become a bigger part of the offense. He squawked this week about not getting more passes in the first half (one catch over the last two weeks) and reminding everyone he runs a mean slant.

Yet Owens, who loves the Monday night stage, insists that wins matter most, especially wins against division foes.

“It’s not a panic time, but time is running out on us and we do need to shape it up a little bit,” he said. “We need to get a string of wins together and beat some formidable opponents. … This game here we should be able to make a statement.”

AP-ES-10-22-06 1544EDT


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