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Players aware of slim NFC East lead


Eli Manning didn't have to be told this week that the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys are lurking right behind the Giants in the NFC East standings.

"I know exactly where they are," Manning said. "Each week will present possibly new standings, a new set of circumstances. As of right now, we know we need to start winning some football games. It starts this week and it's a big game for us."

Manning was referring to the Giants' home game Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. And yes, it is big. It won't decide the winner of the division race, but it will go a long way in determining who will be the eventual champion.

A loss Monday night in Washington left the Giants at 7-5, one game ahead of both Dallas and Washington with one quarter of the season still to be played.

"If you look at it right now, we're first," safety Stevie Brown said. "We have a game lead in the standings, so if win them all, no one can pass us. That's how we're looking at it. If we can win all these games, we're in the playoffs. So that's the right step we're going to try to get to."

The Giants' desire, obviously, is to remain in control of their own destiny. That's why Tom Coughlin said Tuesday that the Giants have to win every one of their four remaining games. With losses in three of their previous four games, the players have no grounds for dissent.

"It's the reality of the situation," said defensive end/linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka. "It doesn't matter who says it. That's the situation we're in. To accomplish our goals, we have to win these last four games."

"It's not the easiest thing in the world you want to hear," wide receiver Victor Cruz said. "But we've been in this position before, where we've had to win games to continue to stay alive for the playoffs. We're no strangers to that, so we've just got to be able to stay focused and get these wins under our belt."

They face a considerable challenge in doing that. The Saints arrive with back-to-back losses and a 5-7 record, but they have a high-scoring offense led by quarterback Drew Brees, who leads the NFL with 31 touchdown passes. And New Orleans has beaten the Giants in their last three meetings, including a 25-point runaway last year in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Giants will then hit the road for games in Atlanta and Baltimore, which are a combined 20-4 (11-1 at home), before ending the season at home against Philadelphia, which is reeling with eight straight losses but would relish an opportunity to cancel the Giants' title celebration.

"A lot of teams are in a very similar situation as us," Manning said. "In these situations, this is fun, this is exciting, and that's how you have to look at it. It's not a situation where you say, 'Oh, we've got to win,' and you get nervous or you get tight or you get worried. Right now, we're playing to try to make it to the playoffs, and extend our season, and these are all big games, and they're all important, and we've got to enjoy this opportunity."

The Giants have traveled a road much like this last year. They lost to the Redskins on December 18 and had to win their final two games to assure they'd be in the playoffs. They beat the Jets and Cowboys to clinch the division and swept four postseason games to win their second championship in five seasons.

Now, with little margin for error and a tough schedule ahead of them, the Giants might need a similar surge just to make the playoffs.

"That's the way it is, that's the nature of the business," linebacker Chase Blackburn said. "You try and fight for a spot in the playoffs. We know we're making that playoff push. It's that time of year where you know you have to get everyone all in and get everyone on the same page and whatever it is – you have to spend extra time in the film room, weight room, training room, whatever it is. The guys in this locker have good character and are willing to make those sacrifices for the team."

"We're just excited," Cruz said. "We're excited for the opportunity to play these last four going into the playoffs on a good swing with some good momentum potentially and just be able to finish this thing strong headed to the playoffs with a positive mindset and we're excited for the challenge. We're all up to it and we're ready to go."

*Tight end Travis Beckum (knee) and safety Tyler Sash (hamstring) have been declared out of the game Sunday.

Safety Kenny Phillips, who played the last two weeks after missing six games with a knee injury, did not practice and is listed as doubtful. He was doubtful last week, but played against the Redskins.

Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks is questionable. He practiced today on a limited basis after missing the workout yesterday with knee soreness.

Six players are listed as probable: linebackers Michel Boley (shoulder), Jacquian Williams (knee) and Blackburn (ankle), defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (back), wide receiver Domenik Hixon (ankle) and running back Ahmad Bradshaw (foot), the only one of the group who was limited in practice.

The big news is the potential return of linebacker Jacquian Williams, who has not played since hurting his knee in San Francisco on October 14. He would give the Giants another speedy defender to lineup against a Saints offense that is fully-staffed with talented backs and receivers, all of whom catch passes from Brees.

"It's time," Williams said. "I practiced better. My team can use me and I'm ready. I'm just waiting on the release from the medical staff and coaches.

"I went 100 percent (this week in practice). I treated it like a game and that's how I tested my body and that's why I'm ready."

Williams' teammates are eager to get him back on the field.

"He adds a more explosive, athletic factor to our defense," Boley said. "He's a tremendous athlete. He does a lot of different things for us."

If Phillips is sidelined, Williams presumably could take over some of his duties, including covering tight end Jimmy Graham, who has scored eight touchdowns.

"(He) can be in some of those coverage situations against the very, very good tight ends," Coughlin said.

"I don't expect my role to change at all," Williams said. "My speed is something that my team looks for me to do and I'm using my speed wherever they choose for me to go."

*Coughlin dismissed the notion that Brees and the Saints, who play their home games in a dome, might have trouble if it's raining and/or cold Sunday in MetLife stadium.

"The quarterback is from Purdue," Coughlin said. "I think he's played in cold weather."

*The Giants are 26-29 in games following a Monday night game, including 8-8 since 2000.

*The Giants lead the series with New Orleans, 14-12, but have lost three in a row and four of their last five games against the Saints. Their only triumph in that streak was a 27-10 Monday night victory on Sept. 19, 2005 in Giants Stadium – though it was a Saints home game because the team was forced to leave New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. On Nov. 28, 2011, the Giants lost in New Orleans, 49-24. The Giants will host the Saints for the first time since Dec. 24, 2006, when New Orleans triumphed, 30-7. The Giants are 10-4 in home games vs. the Saints, who will make their first visit to MetLife Stadium. Total points in the 26 regular season meetings: Giants 546, Saints 544.

*The Giants will hold their annual Toys for Tots drive on Sunday. Giants fans are encouraged to bring new, unwrapped toys to any of the collection vehicles and volunteers located at each gate prior to entering MetLife Stadium on Sunday. Uniformed Marine Corps Reserves will be on hand to assist in collecting these gifts. All gifts collected during the drive will be donated to Toys for Tots, the premier community action program of the United States Marines.


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