Jersey kid Austin returns as The Man

IRVING, Texas -- The kid from North Jersey is returning to the swamplands of East Rutherford, N.J., as a man.

The last time Miles Austin visited Giants Stadium in 2008, he had a total of just 15 catches for 305 yards and three touchdowns in barely three seasons of work. He was a kid playing behind Terrell Owens, Roy Williams and Patrick Crayton.

Sunday afternoon, when Austin arrives with the Cowboys to face the Giants, he brings with him 42 catches for 824 yards and eight touchdowns -- this season. He is no longer playing behind Owens, who is in Buffalo. Austin is starting ahead of Crayton, and he has surged past Williams as the Cowboys' top receiver.

He enters the Cowboys-Giants rivalry all grown up. He's tied for first in the NFL with 15 receptions of 20 yards or more. He's tied for second with six catches for 40 yards or more. In 2009, he's on par with players such as Randy Moss and Reggie Wayne.

On Oct. 11, Austin set the franchise record with 250 receiving yards in a game against Kansas City. He became the first NFL player to reach 250 yards in his starting debut and just the third in history to get 200 yards.

For good measure, Austin also caught the winning 60-yard touchdown pass in overtime vs. the Chiefs -- a victory that the Cowboys now say saved their season.

Austin's winning smile and bubbly personality have made him a favorite within Cowboys Nation. Fans are noticing his speed and physical ability in droves. He is third in Pro Bowl balloting behind established Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who leads voters with 529,904 votes, and Philadelphia Eagles speedster DeSean Jackson, who is second with 293,408.

Austin is closing in with 261,107.

It's been an amazing journey for Austin. So much so that when he joined quarterback Tony Romo in Las Vegas last Friday, it was noticed. Austin posed for a picture at a Vegas casino that got plastered on the Internet.

But Austin says his life hasn't changed too much.

He says he still needs about 18-20 tickets for the Giants game Sunday, the same number as last year. He doesn't hate the Giants. He grew up in Garfield, N.J., but his father was a Raiders fan so he followed suit.

"It makes you feel good when you've got people out there," Austin said. "But that being said, they're not going to be helping me out on the field or block for me. You have to go out there and execute the game plan. It's great to see them out there, but it's really just great to see them before and after the game because during the game you're so locked in you're not really paying attention."

Austin's life off the field might remain the same, but he's getting noticed on it.

"It's different attention. I'm not completely surprised," he said. "I'm not overly overwhelmed. Yeah, its cool. I like making plays and we're winning games."

After Austin emerged from the Chiefs game, opposing defenses started mixed coverages. He saw Cover 2, where he's covered by a cornerback and then a safety deep to prevent big plays. He also saw tight man coverage. He went consecutive games without a catch in the first three quarters against the veteran secondaries of the Eagles and Green Bay Packers.

Austin struggled to break free, totaling just five catches for 69 yards against both teams.

But against the Washington Redskins, Austin again made an impact. He only had four catches for 47 yards, but his 23-yard catch at the end of the third quarter gave the Cowboys' offense confidence that it could move the ball in a tight game.

On the game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, Austin had first-down catches of 9 and 11 yards. The Cowboys scored the game-winning touchdown when Romo scrambled to find Crayton for a 10-yard strike with 2:41 to play.

Four days later, Austin re-established himself with seven catches for 145 yards in a blowout victory over the Oakland Raiders.

Now, he faces the Giants in the state where he grew up, trying to keep showing that maturity that some receivers never reach.

"New York is cool," Austin said. "I'm from North Jersey. I've got a lot of friends up there, and [there's] a lot of attention on the team up there. Hey, if I get 500 yards -- give me what you want to give me -- I wouldn't say it's specifically for New York to have a great game. I would like to have a great game anywhere I can get it."

Calvin Watkins covers the Dallas Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at calvin.watkins@espn3.com