The Washington Redskins want to be careful about making more of Sunday afternoon's game against the New York Giants at RFK Stadium than it actually is.

It's only the fifth game of a 16-game schedule and the teams will play again two weeks later. At the moment, there are five teams with winning records in the NFC, so no matter the outcome both teams likely are headed for the playoffs.

"If we beat them, it won't mean we're in the playoffs," Redskins cornerback Darrell Green said. "It doesn't mean we're going to the Super Bowl or anything. It won't be like winning a Super Bowl, and we can't think of it that way. If we start thinking this is our Super Bowl, we won't play next week. We'll think it's the offseason and I may go to Houston for the holidays by mistake."

But Sunday's game nevertheless is important. It's a chance for the Redskins to beat a playoff team and re-establish themselves as a power inside the NFC East. And most important, it's a chance to win a big game, a game they're not supposed to win against a big-time team.

When was the last time. . . .

What the Redskins didn't know when they routed the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII was that they were beginning a period of transition that would eventually lead them to say goodbye to Neal Olkewicz, Doug Williams and others who'd been important parts of their success in the 1980s.

What they also didn't know about that dizzying celebration is that it would be their last really joyous one for a long time. Since then, they've gone 20-16 and missed the playoffs twice. They're 10-8 at RFK Stadium, 10-8 against the NFC East.

And no team has hurt them more than the Giants, who've beaten the Redskins four straight times by a total of 14 points, the last three games having been decided by a total of seven. No team has let the Redskins get so tantalizingly close to big victories, only to jerk them away at the last moment.

"They've made a couple more plays than we have," Redskins defensive end Charles Mann said. "But look how close the games have been. That really is how evenly matched these two teams are. But you love to play them. These are big-time games and the Giants don't try any tricky-dicky stuff. These are games you remember for a long time."

The Redskins still had shiny new Super Bowl rings when the Giants came to RFK to open the '88 season. The game was 13-13 as the fourth quarter began and the Giants broke it open when Gary Reasons blocked a Steve Cox punt and Tom Flynn picked up the ball and ran 27 yards for a touchdown.

Then linebacker Pepper Johnson jarred Williams from the ball, and nose tackle Jim Burt picked it up and ran 39 yards for a touchdown and a 27-13 lead. The Giants won, 27-20.

The next three games were closer, but as several Redskins said yesterday, when the Giants have needed a big play, they've made it. When they've needed a first down, they've gotten it.

The Redskins say their season won't begin or end with a win over the Giants, but it would be a good place to start changing a trend. It would be a good place to start proving they belong back in the playoffs.

"The bottom line says what it is," Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said. "We're playing a team that has beaten us four straight and seven of eight. The last two years we've been third in our division. If we're going to step up, it's time to step up. You can't say any more or any less about it."

It's inaccurate to say the Redskins haven't won an important game since Super Bowl XXII. Two weeks after losing that '88 opener to the Giants, the Redskins defeated the Philadelphia Eagles, 17-10. Markus Koch and Wilber Marshall made big fourth-quarter plays to preserve the victory.

Last season, the Redskins were 4-5 and had just lost to winless Dallas when they went to Philadelphia and beat the Eagles, 10-3. But the importance of that victory was diminished a week later when the Redskins lost to the Broncos at RFK.

Still, the Redskins ended -- at least temporarily -- a magical run after Super Bowl XXII. And no team has done more to keep the Redskins from gloryland than the Giants.

The Redskins discovered it twice in 1988. In their second meeting, the Redskins trailed by 24-9 before Mark Rypien threw a pair of touchdown passes to Ricky Sanders. That put the Redskins within 24-23, and Marshall's fourth-quarter interception gave them the ball at the New York 29. But on the second play of the drive, Eric Dorsey stripped the ball from Kelvin Bryant to end it.

The Giants won last season's second game, 20-17. The Redskins took a 10-6 lead into the fourth quarter, but the Giants scored on their next two possessions. Rypien connected with Art Monk on a touchdown pass with 3:10 left to make it 20-17. But the Giants ran out the clock.

There have been others -- a 41-17 loss in Houston, a 34-14 loss to the Chicago Bears, a couple of defeats at San Francisco, a loss to the Raiders and a couple of painful defeats to the Philadelphia Eagles.

But when the Redskins talk about getting back to the playoffs -- and proving they again can win big games -- the subject of the Giants always comes up.

"A victory over them would be good for our confidence," Mann said. "But it still only counts as one. It's not a game that will make or break us, but it's important. When you don't make the playoffs, it's obvious you're a little down. Our goal this year was to get back to the playoffs."

Gibbs makes the point that there are only victories and losses. He said the league is so even than there aren't easy victories and one loss is typically not much more painful than another.

"They've been hard-fought games, and if you look back, it's a play or two here and there that determines the outcome," Giants Coach Bill Parcells said yesterday. "Usually it goes to late in the fourth quarter, and someone makes a play. I'm not under any illusions about the differences between the teams. I don't think there's any appreciable difference."