by Grant PaulsenBy Grant Paulsen

A week after playing their most complete game of the season, the Washington Redskins (3-3) are headed to New Jersey to play in a week-seven game with first place in the NFC East up for grabs.

If you want to change a culture and prove to your fans that your program is on the up-swing, these are the types of games the Redskins have to start winning: Mid-season games against a team ahead of you in the standings with something at stake.

The New York Giants (4-2) dominated the San Francisco 49ers last weekend, throttling one of football’s premiere teams in a road-victory that saw Ahmed Bradshaw rush for 116 yards in a 26-3 win. The impressive Giants, who have triumphed in two straight and four-of-five contests recently, have outscored their opponents by 64 points this season. No other team in the NFC East has a points margin of better than plus-5.

A Redskins win would go a long way toward proving that the team is well on its way toward a much-improved 2012 season after finishes of 6-10 and 5-11 the past two years under Mike Shanahan.

Sunday’s game with the Giants is the Redskins’ most significant and meaningful contest during the Shanahan era, which will have spanned 39 games by the end of this weekend. Here are a few reasons why this is the most important game the team has played in under its third-year head coach.

First place is on the line.

If they can upset the Giants the Redskins would go into the final game of the first half of the team’s season as the top team in the NFC East. They don’t give you any awards for being in first place at the midway point, but sitting atop the division in late October would be a vast departure from where the Redskins were at the end of last season, when the team dropped 10 of its final 12 games.

With a win, Washington would also be over .500 for the first time since a week-one win in New Orleans and hovering around .500 is the key to remaining relevant into December, something the Redskins should have set as a goal before the season started. If you can get to December and still be pictured when the TV networks show their “still in the hunt” playoff graphics, you’ve done a respectable job after winning 11 games in the two previous campaigns.

More important than just being in first place for the Redskins though, is the idea that a win would signify that the team actually showed up and out-played a club perceived to be superior in a big game. When is the last time Washington did that?

A chance to go streaking.

A Redskins win in New York would mean that Washington tallied back-to-back wins. That doesn’t sound that impressive, right? It’s just two straight wins. No big deal. Nothing to see here. Two wins in a seven-day span is no big deal, after all. Wrong. The Redskins haven’t won consecutive games since last September. Kind of crazy, right?

Not since weeks one and two of the 2011 season — with victories over the New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals — have the Redskins strung two wins together. That’s the sign of a bad football team.

I asked cornerback Josh Wilson about winning streaks this week and he had some interesting things to say. In addition to making the obvious point that good teams string wins together and bad teams don’t, he said that all of the good teams he’s been on have had some type of four or five game winning streak that you don’t even notice. He said those good clubs go streaking for a few weeks without even noticing it, “then you look up and all the sudden you have 10 wins and you’re headed to the playoffs.” That’s an extreme an example of what I’m talking about. But before you can win five straight you have to win two in a row.

An inability to handle prosperity is a one-way ticket to a losing record. Can Washington build on last week’s win? Perhaps. But recent history says they’ll struggle to.

This would be a quality win .

It goes without saying that New York is the NFC East’s top contender. The Giants own the division’s best record and best point differential, and the club is playing its best football of the season.

Washington has a couple of decent wins on its resume right now. Beating the Saints in New Orleans to inaugurate the season was impressive and the Redskins deserve a ton of credit for that road victory in a hostile environment. But that win doesn’t look as good on paper now that the Saints have lost four of the five games they’ve played and been outscored by 13 points in 2012.

Last weekend’s win over the first-place Vikings was pivotal, and it came against a 4-1 team. But most people don’t think the Minnesota Vikings are legitimate and my guess is that their record won’t be nearly as fear-inducing at year’s end as it was when the Redskins played them. That doesn’t mean Washington doesn’t deserve credit for beating a club that had upended a couple of top-tier clubs earlier in the season, it just means that the Redskins are still looking for a signature win.

Beating the Giants would be a resume-padding, legitimacy-creating victory. If the NFL was college basketball, the selection committee could point to a week-seven win in New York against a then  first place Giants team that had won four-of-five and say “that’s a huge win,” and that would help Washington’s cause to make the tournament.

A blow would be delivered to a division rival.

For all the things the Giants have done well this season, New York is now 0-2 inside the NFC East.

The Giants lost to both the Dallas Cowboys and the Philadelphia Eagles earlier this season, a rough way to initiate division play for a team with postseason aspirations. If you’re a team like New York — a viable contender with a legitimate shot at making postseason noise — you don’t want to go any worse than 4-2 inside the NFC East. Furthermore, though, you can’t afford to be worse than 3-3 in ‘league’ play.

A loss to the Redskins Sunday would basically force the Giants to win their remaining three division games, taking the second of the two-game series’ with all three of the clubs in the East.

I understand that the Giants are 4-0 outside of the NFC East but not losing any games outside of your division is going to end at some point. If you plan on being a division champion, you’ve got to have a respectable division record.

The Redskins could deliver a major blow to New York with a stellar showing on Sunday.



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