EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) – When the NFL released its schedule last spring, the Giants and Eagles had a feeling their December game might decide the NFC East race.

The game today at Giants Stadium might have greater importance. This could be a postseason make-or-break game with three contests left in the regular season.

Entering the weekend, the Giants, Eagles and Atlanta Falcons are tied at 7-6 in the race for the conference’s two wild-card playoff berths. However, New York and Philadelphia control their playoff destiny. If one of them wins out, it’s in.

“This mentality is a dog-eat-dog mentality for us,” Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce said. “It’s one of those things where we know every game is important. Every play is important. Every practice, every meeting. So everything that we do these last three weeks is very important for what we’re trying to do in the future.”

Both teams have gone through hard times to get to this point.

New York had a two-game lead in the NFC East a little more than a month ago before losing four straight to fall to .500. Season-saving CPR came in the form of a road win at Carolina last weekend.

Philadelphia has survived a season-ending injury to quarterback Donovan McNabb last month. After losing to Indianapolis, Jeff Garcia led them to two straight wins, throwing five touchdowns and no interceptions. He has eight TDs and no picks since taking over.

“I think every game for us is a playoff-type game,” Garcia said. “Every game is critical. There is no thinking or believing that, “Well, if we lose this game, we can still win two more after that.’ No, it’s not like that. It’s about this game and only this game.”

While there are no guarantees, expect a close game. Eight of last 15 games between the longtime rivals have been decided by a touchdown or less.

Four have gone to overtime, including New York’s 30-24 win in September.

That game summed up the season for the two inconsistent teams. Philadelphia dominated the first three quarters, opening a 24-7 lead. New York scored the final 23 points, winning on an overtime touchdown pass from Eli Manning to Plaxico Burress.

Both teams have changed significantly since their September meeting.

The Eagles have struggled on defense, allowing at least 200 yards rushing in four of their last six games.

After getting 23 sacks in their first five games, they have eight in the last eight matches.

Losing DE Jevon Kearse to a knee injury in the Giants game didn’t help.

Philadelphia is ranked No. 3 overall in offense, leading the league with 63 plays of 20-plus yards.

“I think we have what it takes,” Eagles safety Brian Dawkins said. “I think we have a lot of fighters in here.”

It is an exciting time of year and regardless of the circumstances, if you’re in it, you’re in it. This is a big game and guys all understand that. Guys won’t need anything to get them pumped up this week, which is a good thing.”

The Giants are finally starting to get healthy with the playoffs within reach.

All-Pro defensive end Osi Umenyiora (hip flexor) returned to the lineup two weeks ago and there is a good chance starting cornerback Corey Raymond (foot) will be back this week. Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Strahan (foot) took part in individual drills, but he is a long shot to play Sunday.

The one player New York has not been able to replace is receiver Amani Toomer, who had a career-high 12 catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns in the first game against the Eagles. He was lost for the season a little more than a month ago with a knee injury.

Backups Tim Carter, David Tyree and Sinorice Moss have not matched his production, which increases the pressure on Burress and halfback Tiki Barber.

“They always have success against us stopping the run,” said Barber, who was limited to 51 yards rushing in the first game. “We’re very familiar with this team in that way, and they are with us as well. We can’t expect them to play the run defense they’ve had the last few weeks.”

If there is a key to the game, it might be the Eagles’ blitz. Philadelphia had five of its eight sacks against Manning in the first half. New York adjusted at halftime and cashed in on second-half chances against the blitz, scoring the winning TD when Philly blitzed.

After Philadelphia, the Giants close here against New Orleans and at Washington. The Eagles will play at Dallas and at home against Atlanta.

Sunday’s winner will continue to control its playoff hopes.

“That’s cool, actually,” Barber said. “You hate to be sitting around, trying to win games and hoping someone else loses. It’s nice to be able to control our destiny, to drive toward the playoffs. We hope to get where we want to be.”

AP-ES-12-14-06 1949EST


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