EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- A team that has thrived the last 10 months whenever its season has been on the line finds itself in a familiar position this morning.
Last year the Washington Redskins reeled off five consecutive victories to reach the playoffs when one loss would have meant elimination. The last two weeks, the Redskins posted season-saving wins over Houston and Jacksonville when one loss would have meant trouble.
"I don't want to say that we need to be desperate to play great, but every time we've been in a situation where we've had to win, we've come up with the big win," tight end Chris Cooley said. "We're there again. It's backs against the wall ... again."
"There" is below .500 and back in a situation in which another two-game losing streak will be lethal to the Redskins' playoff hopes after a listless 19-3 loss to the desperate New York Giants yesterday at the Meadowlands. The Redskins dropped to 2-3 overall with a third straight road dud against the Giants.
"Since I've been here, it stinks to play the Giants [on the road]," Cooley said.
Blunt and accurate. Since Joe Gibbs returned to the Redskins, they have lost a 20-14 game low-lighted by seven turnovers and a 36-0 whitewashing. Yesterday's setback wasn't nearly as bad in terms of ugliness, but the defeat was just as thorough.
"You're playing a game like that and you figure that somewhere somebody will make a play," Gibbs said. "But today it didn't happen for us."
Again, blunt and accurate. The offense was held to a season-low 164 yards, and the defense returned to its mid-September habit of finding ways to stay on the field and continued its season-long ways of giving up big pass plays. The Giants had four pass plays that gained at least 20 yards.
A month into the season, the Redskins already have lost more NFC East games than they did all last season, 0-2 compared with 5-1. But at least the two defeats have been on the road.
"It doesn't matter if it's home or away. A division loss is always a disappointment," defensive end Renaldo Wynn said. "This was a must-have win just as much for us as it was them."
That's a stretch. The Redskins needed the win to get above .500 for the first time this season; the Giants needed it to avoid a 1-3 start and keep their season from imploding. And New York, coming off a bye week, played like it. The Giants stayed away from the turnovers on offense and broken coverages on defense that plagued them in September.
Tiki Barber continued his home mastery of the Redskins, rushing 23 times for 123 yards. Quarterback Eli Manning avoided the big mistake and threw for 256 yards and one touchdown on 23-for-33 passing. The Giants even overcame three red zone trips on which they had to settle for field goals of 24, 34 and 32 yards by Jay Feely.
The Redskins' only score was John Hall's 39-yard field goal that opened the scoring with 2:59 left in the first quarter. Their final six drives ended with four punts, a missed field goal and a failed fourth-down conversion. An offense that had rolled up 495 and 481 yards the last two weeks was held in check by the Giants. The troubles that plagued them in the first two games reared up again -- shoddy third-down play (3-for-11) and no big plays (the longest was 17 yards).
"I can't really explained what happened -- that just wasn't us out there," center Casey Rabach said. "We expected to do what we had the last two weeks every week. Anytime you go out there and flop around and not produce, it's tough."
Flop around is an apt description for every aspect of the Redskins' play. Just when the offense would get a first down, a penalty or failed running play would push them back.
Just when the defense would make stops on first and second down, the Giants would convert on third down (nine times in 16 tries).
The Redskins' offense had three possessions inside the Giants 40-yard line but came away with only the field goal. Entering the game ranked second in first-down gains (6.38 an attempt), they were limited to 3.8 yards on 15 first-down snaps.
"We want to be moving forward, and it was like a yo-yo game for us -- move forward, move back, move forward, move back -- and it didn't seem like we were going anywhere," right tackle Jon Jansen said.
The Giants' offense, meanwhile, wore the Redskins down. New York had scoring drives of seven, five, 14, 15 and nine plays that covered an average of 57.4 yards and had four pass plays of 21-plus yards. The Redskins have allowed 20 such completions in five games.
"We had those guys against the ropes a couple times, but somehow or another they would come up with a big play," Wynn said. "There are three or four plays that stand out and sums up why they were able to keep drives going."
The longest drive was also the most important -- a 15-play, 69-yard march to start the second half that was capped by a 2-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Plaxico Burress to make it 16-3. At that point, the Giants had run 47 offensive plays (including 29 consecutive bridging the second and third quarters), the Redskins 24.
The Redskins tried to answer back on the next series. But Brunell threw incomplete on third-and-1 from the Giants 24, and Hall was wide left on a 42-yard field goal attempt on fourth-and-1.
"We need to give ourselves an opportunity to get the momentum, and when we do something well to get it back, we have to take advantage," Jansen said. "We didn't do that today."
Now the Redskins have to do something about it, starting with Tennessee on Sunday.
"Anytime you're under .500, it's a must win week again," Jansen said. "It was the same thing we were talking about a few weeks ago -- we have to get back to .500 and go from there."