On the highway to football's version of nirvana, the Washington Redskins have run into this kind of detour before.
Two months ago, Washington pummeled the San Francisco 49ers by 35 points before enduring a similar fate - 36-0 - against the New York Giants. That loss began a stretch in which the Redskins dropped six of eight games.
Today at 1 p.m. at FedEx Field, Washington has an opportunity to complement a 35-7 rout of the Dallas Cowboys as it takes another shot at the NFC East-leading Giants.
But will the Redskins (8-6) tack on a fourth consecutive victory that could propel them closer to the franchise's first playoff spot since 1999? Or is another loss and more consternation about the team's placement in the NFC in the works?
"We realize that this is do-or-die for us," quarterback Mark Brunell said. "To stay alive, we need to win, and it's going to be tough because they're a very good football club and they've got a lot on the line, as well. It'll be a good football game."
Forgetting about last Sunday's victory over the archrival Cowboys was the first priority for coach Joe Gibbs, who frequently cited the swing of emotions and performance from the rout of the 49ers to the Giants debacle.
"What concerns me is that it was a big game for us back then," Gibbs said. "And we really couldn't do anything about it. It's a big game now, and the question is, can we do something about it? ... I think our guys know what's at stake."
Much is at stake for both teams. A win would give New York its first division title since 2000 and cement the team's standing as one of the favorites, along with the Seattle Seahawks, to travel to Detroit for the Super Bowl.
A Washington victory combined with losses by Dallas (vs. Carolina), Minnesota (vs. the Ravens) and Atlanta (vs. Tampa Bay) would clinch a postseason berth for the Redskins. A win would also give the team a chance to play the Philadelphia Eagles on New Year's Day for a shot at its first NFC East crown since 1999.
But both of those scenarios depend on today's game against the Giants, who overwhelmed Washington on Oct. 30. New York dominated every major category, including yards (386 to 125), turnovers (one to four) and time of possession (39 minutes, 21 seconds to 20:39).
A significant factor was the play of New York running back Tiki Barber, who rushed for a then-career-high 206 yards and one touchdown.
Barber, who has gained at least 100 yards in his past five games and had a career-high 220 yards last week against Kansas City, credits his nine-year stay in the league with his progression.
"That's been one of my biggest assets," he said during a conference call with Washington-area media. "I understand defenses, the mechanics of tackling, how to stay on my feet and balance. ... Over the years, I've evolved and re-invented myself ... "
Barber will clearly be the primary target for the Redskins' defense, which has allowed just one opposing running back to post 100 yards (San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson) since the loss to the Giants.
"He's just one of those backs that finds the holes," defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "Tiki's a good back. We can't let him get started."
Getting motivated shouldn't be a problem for Washington. Gibbs said the team's precarious standing in the NFC and the memory of the shutout by New York will be more than enough.
"With everything that we've got on the line and the way we played them the first go-round, I don't think I'll have to say a lot this week," he said. "We all know what's at stake, and you're going to have to play great down the stretch. ... We have for three weeks, but now we've got to go see if we can go get this."
Keys to the game
Portis vs. Giants' rush defense
New York, ranked 11th in the league against the run, has allowed an opposing back to gain at least 100 yards in three of the past four games. Clinton Portis, who has reached 100 yards each of the past three weeks, is central to keeping the Giants' pass rush off quarterback Mark Brunell.
Jansen, Samuels vs. Strahan, Umenyiora
Washington tackles Jon Jansen and Chris Samuels have been solid in pass protection, but they will have their hands full with the Pro Bowl-bound, 24-sack pair of Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, who combined for three sacks and a recovered fumble in the teams' first meeting.
Manning vs. 'Skins' pass defense
New York quarterback Eli Manning has looked human in the past three games, throwing for just 632 yards and two touchdowns and getting intercepted six times. Washington needs to keep the Giants' offense one-dimensional.
Tiki Barber will carry the load for the Giants, who also should be a much stiffer challenge defensively than the Dallas Cowboys were last week. Giants 21, Redskins 16.
Giants@Redskins Today, 1 p.m., chs. 45, 5, 1430 AM, 106.7 FM Line: Redskins by 3