WASHINGTON -- Consider one statistic: The New York Giants never received a punt yesterday.
"If you had told me that before the game, I would have said we would lose," New York wide receiver Stephen Baker said.
But the fact is, the Giants beat the Washington Redskins, 24-20. They won with three interceptions and one fumble recovery against a team that had turned the ball over once in four games. They won with three big pass plays against a defense that was nearly as suffocating as the warm, humid air on an Indian summer afternoon.
And, the Giants won in one of their favorite playgrounds, beating the Redskins at RFK Stadium for the third straight time.
"This was a gift to us," Baker said. "We rarely win games against a team marching down at us at will. But we did."
After opening the season with victories over the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys (twice) and Miami Dolphins, the Giants were something of an untested, unbeaten commodity. But not anymore.
"It's a very big step for us," New York coach Bill Parcells said.
The San Francisco 49ers, until proven otherwise, remain the favorites to represent the National Football Conference in the Super Bowl. But the Giants, with a 5-0 record and two-game lead in the NFC East, have emerged as the 49ers' sternest challengers.
"We can't even think about the Super Bowl yet," linebacker Lawrence Taylor said. "We have to play the Redskins again a week after next. We're just happy to win this game and get the hell out of Washington."
Happy may be an understatement. The Giants' offense, reduced to probing, uncertain assaults, got 204 of their 332 yards on three plays directed to the soft underbelly of the Redskins' secondary. Quarterback Phil Simms to Baker went 80 yards for a first-quarter touchdown.
"That's what you play for," Baker said. "When I got that pass, I said, 'Yeah. Let's go.' "
Two passes up the middle zapped the Redskins in the third quarter. Simms to tight end Mark Bavaro went 61 yards, leading to Ottis Anderson's 5-yard touchdown. Simms to Maurice Carthon went 63 yards, setting up a 2-yard touchdown pass to Bavaro.
"You eliminate one of the three big plays, and the Redskins win the game," Giants center Bart Oates said. "We didn't have a sustained drive all game. What surprised me was the vanilla of their defense. We prepared for a multitude of looks, and they showed us a basic 4-3 all game."
There was nothing basic about the Redskins' offense, though. They used a confounding collection of multiple formations, lining up with two tight ends, or four wide-outs, even two backs. Oates called it "a masterpiece." Taylor said he couldn't believe what he was seeing.
"I thought we had Washington figured out -- until this game," Taylor said. "They sucked you inside and then bounced it out. I hadn't seen that in 10 years playing these guys. They changed so many different things and ran so many different ways, it took us time to figure it out."
But once the Giants figured out the Redskins' offense, they pounced on mistakes.
"The Giants' defense is a dictating defense," cornerback Reyna Thompson said. "We weren't waiting for things to happen. We were trying to win."
In the fourth quarter, the Giants' defense seized control. Greg Jackson intercepted a pass from Stan Humphries at the Giants 2 to shut off one drive. Thompson alertly pounced on a punt that clipped the leg of Washington's Johnny Thomas, giving the Giants the ball at the Redskins 1 and setting up Matt Bahr's 19-yard field goal. Finally, Jackson shut down the Redskins' final drive with an interception at the New York 42.
"I've been waiting a long time for a game like this," Jackson said. "I didn't want to be too impatient. The balls came my way, and I just wanted to make the catches. Now, we're in control."
Remember, the Giants didn't receive a punt, and they still won. The first frost of autumn hasn't hit, and already, the Giants own the NFC East.