NFC East race again tightens up

LANDOVER, Md. -- Maybe the Washington Redskins are just in the New York Giants' heads, right? Maybe the Giants just can't solve what the Redskins throw at them. They have had a miserable time with Washington of late, going 1-3 against them over the past two seasons, and it's possible they just don't match up well against them. Entirely possible that, just as they did last December, the Giants will rebound from a frustrating loss to their division rivals in D.C. and roll on into (and maybe even through) the playoffs from here on out. No one would be overly surprised.

But if they don't -- if this Giants December ends up a repeat of 2009 or 2010 instead of 2011 -- then, wow, will the Giants have plenty of missed opportunities on which to reflect. Monday Night's flop at FedEx Field. The 0-2 stretch against AFC North opponents in early November. A loss to the Eagles (who haven't won since!) in Philadelphia at the tail end of September. All of these loom in memory as avoidable pitfalls, games in which Super Bowl champions should be able to find a way. Had they won just one of those four games I mentioned, the Giants would have a firm grasp on a fairly weak NFC East and be looking ahead to the playoffs.

"We still feel comfortable where we are," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck insisted. "We still have a one-game lead."

That's important to remember, even as fans of the Cowboys and Redskins begin sizing up schedules and researching tiebreakers. The Giants are the one NFC East team that remains in control of its destiny. If the Giants win all four of their remaining games, they will win the division, regardless of what the Redskins and Cowboys do. Those other teams need help. The Giants do not.

But while the Giants have shown, with impressive victories over teams like San Francisco and Green Bay, that they can play with and beat pretty much anybody, they have totally squandered their margin for error. They have the reeling-but-dangerous Saints on Sunday at home, then they have consecutive road games in Atlanta and Baltimore. The Falcons are 32-7 at home over the past five years. The Ravens are 33-6. It's folly to imagine that the Giants can't win either game or both, but neither would be an upset if they lost it. And then in Week 17 loom those pesky Eagles, who are one of the worst teams in the league right now but have beaten the Giants eight times in their last nine tries. No gimme, that.

"You can't be down about it," Eli Manning said. "We still have a great opportunity ahead of us. We have some tough teams to face, but that's what makes it exciting. We have to play better football."

The good news for the Giants is that they know they can. They have the recent memory of the way they played last week against Green Bay, not to mention the not-distant memory of the way they played in last year's playoffs and Super Bowl, to drive, motivate and convince them. They are not worried or scared or nervous, and they really shouldn't be -- yet.

But what Monday Night's loss did is put the Giants on the precipice of trouble. If they lose even one or two of their remaining four games, there are two division rivals who don't like them very much and would be happy to accept the gift of the opportunity the defending champs seem intent on offering. They have, by failing to win the games they needed to win to make their lead comfortable, instead made things much more difficult for themselves than they had to be. And maybe that's the way they like it. Maybe the Giants are at their best when things aren't easy. Maybe this thing with the Redskins is really real, and the Giants just can't figure out that one particular team but will bounce back against seemingly tougher ones. We wait to find out. They have once again, and in spite of what was surely their strong preference to do otherwise, set up the final weeks of the season in a way that's sure to hold everyone's attention.