The Washington Redskins are, surprisingly, sitting atop the NFC East and have a chance to build upon the lead when they visit the cellar-dwelling New York Giants on Sunday.
The Redskins (4-2) have won two in a row — both at home — since a Monday night beating in New Orleans to move 1 1/2 games clear of defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia and Dallas in the division.
The Giants (1-6), meanwhile, are languishing at the bottom of the NFC East and enter Sunday’s match mired in a four-game slide and tied for the worst record in the NFL.
Still, Washington has plenty of reasons to be wary of New York, having lost 10 of its last 11 visits to MetLife Stadium and knowing they have to face the Eagles twice over the final five weeks of the regular season.
“We have a sense of urgency that we’ll get better instead of just going through the motions,” Redskins safety D.J. Swearinger told reporters Wednesday. “We go out there with a purpose.”
The biggest question surrounding Sunday’s game is whether that sense of urgency applies to the reeling Giants. New York made a pair of trades this week that signaled the start of a rebuilding job, dealing away cornerback Eli Apple and nose tackle Damon Harrison, the team’s best run defender.
Apple was sent to New Orleans for a pair of draft picks and Harrison was shipped to Detroit for a fifth-rounder, but first-year Giants head coach Pat Shurmur said neither of those moves should be interpreted as a sign that New York is giving up on the season.
“That’s not the narrative — throwing in the towel,” Shurmur said following the trade of Apple. “We’re not throwing in the towel. This will give an opportunity for some young players and newer players to have an opportunity to play. Plus, as we kind of look at this thing moving forward, we’ll have a draft pick — actually two draft picks, one next year and certainly one in 2020, in value.”
Giants quarterback Eli Manning, the target of criticism throughout the season for his team’s offensive struggles, is coming off his most productive game stat-wise with 399 yards passing in Monday night’s 23-20 loss in Atlanta. Manning said New York’s sole focus needs to be on the Redskins.
“We got a job to do,” said Manning. “I think when you go through some controversy or things happen, it’s about keeping the team close and rallying around each other. If people are saying something outside, prove them wrong, and let’s go out there and win a football game.”
Washington leads the NFC East despite an offense that is still trying to find its way. Quarterback Alex Smith, acquired in a trade from Kansas City to replace free-agent departure Kirk Cousins, has passed for 163 and 178 yards, respectively, in wins over Carolina and Dallas the past two weeks.
Granted, Smith is missing a number of receiving options due to injuries, but he rarely takes shots downfield and has seven touchdowns against two interceptions, numbers reminiscent of his “game-manager” reputation while with the Chiefs and 49ers.
“We’ve had a lot of similar carry-over concepts from Kansas City and from where he’s been with San Francisco,” Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said. “Alex has been taught different things. Sometimes I take that for granted. He’s a 15-year vet and he probably doesn’t need to know how to read this certain concept because he’s done it so many times. But, we might have a little tweak on it.”
Another veteran has made a huge impact on Washington’s offense. Running back Adrian Peterson, with his fourth team in three seasons, has rushed for 438 yards overall and registered at least 96 yards in four of the six games, allowing the Redskins to play a physical, close-to-the-vest style.
“I’ve only known him from afar, but I can tell he works hard,” said Giants inside linebacker Alec Ogletree of the former NFL MVP. “For him, he has a chip on his shoulder to prove everybody wrong that said he couldn’t do it anymore, and he’s doing it so far for them. If you don’t come to play, he will embarrass you out there. We got a tough challenge this week, and we just have to play our best.”
New York wideouts Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard each went over 100 yards last week, but rookie running back Saquon Barkley failed to amass 100 yards from scrimmage for the first time this season. Barkley faces a defense that ranks third against the run at 87.3 yards rushing allowed per game.