EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) -No matter how well it has played during a current six-game winning streak, the New York Giants defense has been haunted by the memory of a season-opening loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
That first game under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo was ugly. The defense surrendered 45 points and allowed the Cowboys to score on seven of 10 possessions. Tony Romo, Terrell Owens and Jason Witten rolled up 478 yards.
``That first game was like a bad dream,'' Pro Bowl middle linebacker Antonio Pierce said Wednesday, as the Giants (6-2) prepared for Sunday's game against the Cowboys (7-1). ``If you want to consider that a chip (on the shoulder), that's what we have. The fact is, it did happen, but other things have changed.''
After giving up 80 points in losing the first two games, the defense has undergone a transformation. It has given up 79 points in the winning streak and recorded 28 of its league-high 30 sacks in the six-game run. No team has gained more than 284 yards or scored more than 24 points against the Giants in that span.
The only major lineup changes that Romo will see in the defense will be at cornerback.
R.W. McQuarters and Corey Webster started the first game, with McQuarters in the lineup because Sam Madison was battling a hamstring injury. Madison was back in the starting lineup the following week and Aaron Ross, the No. 1 draft pick, replaced Webster midway through the third game.
The big scheme change that will confront the Cowboys will be on third down. New York now uses four defensive ends in its dime package with Osi Umenyiora, Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka, a one-time defensive end who was moved to linebacker this season.
``We are far from game one, week one,'' said Ross, who leads the team with three interceptions and shares the lead with seven passes defended. ``I'm telling you, we are really far from that. We were not executing our plays, and some guys, myself included, were not comfortable with the play calling cause it was coach Spags' first time with this defense. We pretty well know the defense now.''
The challenge will be trying to slow a team that has not scored fewer than 24 points in any game this season.
``We realize what kind of animal is coming here on Sunday,'' Tuck said. ``They are playing well and they have a lot of weapons. You can take a couple away, and they have a lot of other areas they can go to.
``If I speak for the defense, I know the guys around here are excited to go out there and butt heads with these guys,'' Tuck said. ``It's one of the biggest rivalries in the NFL and you've got to love to be put in a situation where you go out there and play against a Cowboys team and they are going to bring it.''
Linebacker Kawika Mitchell has been looking forward to playing the Cowboys again for weeks. All the linebackers were horrible in the opener, especially in letting Cowboys tight end Jason Witten roam freely in making six catches for 116 yards and a touchdown.
``It's just a terrible taste,'' Mitchell said of the experience. ``Forty-five points! Any time a team does that and you get to face them again, it's going to be a lot of fun.''
Many consider this a major test for the defense, considering the teams that the Giants beat in the current streak have only 13 wins combined and Dallas is now considered one of the league's elite teams.
Safety Gibril Wilson said the defense isn't planning anything special.
``We're not going to try to reinvent the wheel,'' he said. ``We're just going to do the stuff we've been doing the last six games.''

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