The space that separates the New York Giants from the Washington Redskins is often the narrowest of slivers. One week it's a last-minute field goal. Another week it's a last-gasp pass that finds unfriendly fingers.
Two weeks ago, that margin was the fortuitous bounce of a Sean Landeta punt, a break that catapulted the Giants past the Redskins one more time.
In a rivalry that falls somewhere between morality play and Armageddon, the Giants have beaten the Redskins five straight times. But the last four games have been whisker close, decided by four points or less. So it is with an air of extreme caution, Landeta suggested, that the 6-0 Giants approach Sunday's rematch with the 4-2 Redskins in the Meadowlands (4 p.m., Ch. 11).
"Everybody here takes this game very cautiously because we know how good the Redskins are," said the Towson State and Loch Raven High alumnus. "We know it's practically an even game except for a play or two. You try like hell to make those couple plays go for you."
In the latest Giants-Redskins drama, Landeta was responsible for the play that unhinged a Redskins comeback. The Giants had a loose grip on a 21-20 lead late in the game when Landeta aimed a punt for the coffin corner at RFK Stadium. The ball accidentally struck Redskins special teamer Johnny Thomas on the leg and was recovered by the Giants at the Redskins' 1. One goal-line stand later, the Giants had to settle for a field goal, but it was enough to deliver a 24-20 victory.
"I watched film," Landeta said of the punt, "and if the ball doesn't hit [Thomas'] leg, it probably goes out inside the 5.
"If it didn't hit him, the ball would have done what I wanted it to. I kicked it left. It hit the ground and shot directly toward the sideline."
Landeta, a veteran of six NFL seasons after three in the USFL, admits it is a "fluky" break to nick an enemy player with a punt. "In nine pro seasons, that's happened maybe three times," he said.
But there is nothing fluky about Landeta's career, during which he has played in the Super Bowl and Pro Bowl, and been named the NFL's all-decade punter for the '80s.
On a team that relies heavily on ball-control offense and field position, Landeta, 28, is one of the Giants' key weapons. His average kick of 45.1 yards is second in the NFL, as is his net average of 38.8. He has dropped five punts inside the 20.
Ironically, his best game of the season came last week against the Phoenix Cardinals, whose kicker, Rich Camarillo, nosed out Landeta in last year's Pro Bowl balloting. Landeta averaged 52.3 yards against the Cardinals, including kicks of 56 and 53 yards.
Landeta led the league with a 37.8 net average last year. He said he was disappointed at not making the Pro Bowl, but conceded Camarillo "had as good a year, and maybe a little better." It was a comeback season for Landeta, who missed 15 games in 1988 with disk problems in his lower back.
Despite playing in predominantly open-air and cold-weather stadiums, Landeta has been remarkably consistent. Except for his injury-abbreviated 1988 season, he has averaged between 42.7 and 44.8 yards. Of his 360 punts in the NFL, only one was blocked -- by New Orleans in 1987. Yet Landeta seemingly gets more attention in the New York gossip columns for his bachelor lifestyle -- i.e. Marla Maples dated him before she found Donald Trump -- than he gets in the sports pages for his punting prowess.
Coach Bill Parcells may appreciate Landeta, but he doesn't rave about him.
"He won't praise me," Landeta said of his relationship with the coach. "Maybe he doesn't like me, but he knows I perform. Therefore he hardly ever says anything negative."
With Landeta, though, individual recognition "isn't that important, not anymore."
"The more you play, the more you realize winning games is what it's about," he said. "I have a Super Bowl ring and a Pro Bowl watch that I wear. For every one person that asks about the watch, 50 ask about the ring. That's the best analogy of how team success is so much greater than individual success."
Which brings Landeta to Sunday, in Giants Stadium, against the Redskins, who are trying to cut into New York's two-game lead in the NFC East.
"In our eyes it's a huge game because if we can win, it really puts us in great position," Landeta said.