Redskins vs. Giants: Five story lines to follow Sunday night

Eli Manning

The Redskins aim to snap a three-game losing streak as they host Eli Manning and the Giants. (Associated Press)

In another game that originally was projected to have playoff implications when the schedule-makers drew it all up, the Washington Redskins host the New York Giants at 8:30 p.m. Sunday.

Instead of the battle for the NFC East that this matchup represented last season, the two struggling teams will fight to avoid last place in the division.

The Redskins aim to snap a three-game losing streak and improve to 4-8. Meanwhile, the Giants will try to get back on track after having a four-game winning streak snapped last weekend by the Dallas Cowboys. A victory would improve New York’s record to 5-7.

Here are five story lines to follow in this game.

1. Motivation – The Giants still have a glimmer of hope that with a strong finish and some outside help, they could find themselves in position for postseason contention. The Redskins will be eliminated from playoff contention with a loss. So it’ll be interesting to see what kind of fight they put up. Mike Shanahan and his players all say that they do not expect to give up on the season. But last week’s performance against the 49ers looked anything but inspired. Everyone talks about carrying themselves with professionalism and pride, but unconsciously, could there be a drop-off? There are plenty of problem areas on this team, so it will take all the inspiration and mental fortitude for the Redskins to overcome them and put on a strong performance. We’ll see if they’re capable of doing that.

2. Turnover battle – Ball security has represented one of the Giants’ biggest problem areas. New York has turned the ball over a league-high 30 times (18 interceptions, which ties for first, and 12 fumbles, which is second-most). The Redskins’ defense could do their offense a big favor by forcing turnovers and setting up the unit with favorable field position. The key will be pressuring Eli Manning, who is having a down year with 17 interceptions to his 14 touchdowns and a passer rating of 72.5 (the worst since his rookie season). Meanwhile, on offense, the Redskins can’t afford to cripple themselves with turnovers of their own. In what could wind up being a sloppy game between two bad teams, the group that manages to escape with the fewest errors could prove the victor.

3. Pass protection – The Redskins have been woeful in this category in recent weeks. After giving up four sacks in both the Minnesota and Philadelphia games, the offensive line surrendered a season-high six sacks against San Francisco last week. They can’t expect to have a chance for their offense to do much of anything if they can’t keep their quarterback upright. Meanwhile, Griffin can help his line out by getting the ball out of his hands quickly rather than hesitating and waiting to see an opening to deliver the pass. One possible positive for Washington: the Giants haven’t been particularly strong in the pass-rushing department. Mathias Kiwanuka has a team-high four sacks, but defensive ends Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul haven’t been extremely impactful with 2.5 and 2.o sacks, respectively. On the flip side, Washington’s defense must get after Manning. Brian Orakpo and Jarvis Jenkins have gotten to the quarterback in each of the last two weeks, but the defense as a whole has dropped off in this department. If Manning finds himself under little duress, he could wind up having a big day against a struggling Redskins secondary.

4. Reed’s return – Robert Griffin III and the Redskins definitely missed rookie tight end Jordan Reed (concussion) last week against the 49ers. Since Reed’s ascension up the depth chart, he has developed into a favorite target of Griffin’s particularly on third down. Offensive coordinator says Reed is a big reason why the offense went from one of the worst on third downs to one of the league’s best. The athletic, sure-handed rookie, because of his versatility and ability to create so many mismatches, should help create a spark for this offense a week after the unit failed to score a touchdown for only the second time under Mike Shanahan.

5. Red zone execution – Whatever the Redskins do, they must score points any opportunity they get. They can’t afford to get into the red zone and repeatedly settle for field goals because of an inability put the ball in the end zone. Washington has demonstrated an ability to move the ball, but things bog down once the unit crosses the 20-yard line. There’s no one cause for the struggles, coaches say. One play it could be a blown blocking assignment that leads to a sack. Other times, it could be a turnover, an under- or over-throw, or a pass-catcher not getting open, or dropping the ball. The team must eliminate the miscues and capitalize.

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