EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) – Parity has returned to the NFC East, giving a little more oomph to today’s game between the New York Giants and Washington Redskins.

Not that the 73-year-old rivalry has ever needed many outside stimulii to get the juices flowing.

“These two teams always play each other tough no matter what the records are,” said veteran Giants safety Shaun Williams. “But this is a crucial game, and that definitely adds something to it.”

New York and Washington sit tied with Philadelphia atop the division with 4-2 records, a half-game ahead of Dallas (4-3).

The logjam was created during a hectic span last Sunday when the Giants scored with 5 seconds left to beat Denver; the Cowboys gave up 10 points in the final 40 seconds to lose at Seattle; and the Eagles returned a blocked field goal late in the fourth quarter for a touchdown to beat San Diego.

The Redskins had already completed a comparatively leisurely 52-17 trouncing of San Francisco, giving coach Joe Gibbs a chance to check in on his division rivals.

“I’m watching the Philly game, and I kind of said, Well, Philly’s not going to win this one … Yeah, they’re going to win this one.’ Twice,” said Gibbs.

“Then I said, Dallas is winning this one.’ Then I left to go eat, and I find out about the last-second field goal there. And the Giants, I looked at that at one point and said, Hey, looks like Denver’s playing extremely well’ – and they came back to win at the end. It’s great to be at 4-2 and playing some games that are really going to count bigtime.”

Today’s game will be the first in the New York franchise’s history without Wellington Mara, the Giants owner who died of cancer Tuesday at 89.

Mara’s association with the franchise his father bought in 1925 dates back to the team’s first game that year.

“For us, it’s almost a motivator, because Mr. Mara meant so much to this team, to the city and the NFL,” said defensive end Michael Strahan. “It’s up to us to represent everything he stood for out on the field and do what he would like us to do, which is to be the best team we can be and go out and win games. I’m sure he’ll be watching, so hopefully we’ll give him the same thrill we gave him last Sunday.”

While much has been made of Eli Manning’s rapid development in his second year at quarterback for the Giants, Mark Brunell has executed a dramatic turnaround for Washington.

Through six games, the 13-year veteran was fourth in the NFL with a quarterback rating of 98.3 and had a touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio of 12-2.

In nine starts a year ago before Patrick Ramsey replaced him, Brunell completed less than 50 percent of his passes and had a rating of 63.9.

“I think just about every quarterback would tell you that you are only as good as the 10 guys around you,” Brunell said. “Last year we were all coming around for the first time and learning a new system, learning how to play with one another and getting used to one another.

“Now I think we’re just a year in the system and we have added some talent at the receiver position.”

Santana Moss, acquired from the New York Jets in the offseason, has given Brunell a deep option and leads the NFL in yards receiving with 753. David Patten, who has played with the Giants, Cleveland and New England, has been a key addition, and second-year tight end/H-back Chris Cooley has been a threat with 25 catches.

The Giants have lived dangerously the last two weeks, tying Dallas in the final seconds before losing in overtime and then beating Denver after spotting the Broncos a 23-10 lead.

The late-game heroics have partially obscured the fact the Giants’ offense coughed and wheezed its way through the first three quarters of both games before finally awakening.

Manning’s favorite weapon, wide receiver Plaxico Burress, sat out practice Wednesday and Thursday with a sore shoulder, and was listed as questionable for Sunday.

“We haven’t had the balance that I would really like to have,” said coach Tom Coughlin.

“We’ve had some production. I’d like to see us continue to grow in terms of the ability to run the ball when we want to run the ball and stay away from the turnovers. But we’re taking advantage of some of the weapons that we have and there’s big plays being made.”


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