The New York Giants are one of the monkeys that have crawled onto the backs of the Washington Redskins over the last year or so. All of a sudden, the Redskins can't win big games, can't beat winning teams, and have been defeated by the NFL's two unbeaten teams -- the Giants and 49ers.

Yet perceptions can be tricky, especially with a team that still is pretty much where it thought it would be after seven games.

The Redskins could have circled a 4-3 start when schedules were released last spring. They entered this season privately saying they were not as good as the Giants, who as one club official said, "are heads and shoulders above everyone else in our division."

What the Redskins were hoping was to be able to push the Giants into the fourth quarter a couple of times and perhaps steal a game. They have gotten into the fourth quarter within striking distance and driving both times, but wound up losing 24-20 two weeks ago at RFK Stadium and 21-10 Sunday at the Meadowlands.

"I don't think we've seen the last of these guys," Giants Coach Bill Parcells said. "They're a pretty good football team."

The Redskins may prove themselves to be very good by playoff time, especially since Coach Joe Gibbs's teams have traditionally played their best in the second half of the season. The record reads 44-30 (.595) during the first half of his 10 years, 51-19 (.729) in the second half and 11-3 (.786) in the playoffs.

Gibbs agreed with that assessment this week and apparently will tell his players the same thing this week, as they prepare to play the Detroit Lions (3-4) Sunday at the Pontiac Silverdome.

He will emphasize that losing to the Giants and 49ers is one thing, but that the Redskins' chances of returning to the playoffs will hinge on beating the teams they are supposed to beat.

"We've had three losses and you can measure them by who they were against and what they mean," Gibbs said. "But I think the way people are going to remember this team is still to be decided. We were in a position to win two of the Giants' games, and that's about all you can say. Now, we're going to be faced with some really tough games that mean a lot toward the playoffs."

Still, the Redskins will have a tough time shaking the perception that they have lost the ability to win big games until they actually win one, until they actually beat the Giants or 49ers or some team with a playoff berth on the line.

That is something they have not done since Super Bowl XXII. The Redskins are 21-18 since that game, having gone 6-7 (.462) against teams with winning records and 15-11 (.577) against teams .500 and below.

That appears to be better than the league average, but some of their biggest failures have been nationally televised -- the Giants, 49ers and Broncos.

"I think it's starting to gnaw on them that they can't beat us," Giants quarterback Phil Simms said Sunday. "And we know that."

Giants defensive tackle Erik Howard said: "As a coach, I don't know what I'd be telling them over there. All those questions this week about, 'Do you have their number?' I don't know what the deal is now."

The deal may be that the 49ers are one of the best teams to play the game and that the Giants in 1990 are only a notch below them.

Redskins quarterback Stan Humphries threw six interceptions and no touchdown passes in two starts against the Giants, but who has done better? Lawrence Taylor and the Giants have the top-rated defense in the NFL, and neither Miami's Dan Marino nor Philadelphia's Randall Cunningham -- who have 178 more NFL starts than Humphries -- did better.

The Dolphins lost to the Giants, 20-3, in Week 3 as Marino completed 14 of 30 passes for 115 yards, two interceptions and no touchdowns.

Was Humphries too cautious in constantly dumping the ball off to tight ends and running backs? Marino's longest gain was 20 yards.

Cunningham also was stuffed by the Giants, that coming in Week 1 when he threw three interceptions and no touchdown passes. He completed 25 of 42 for 226 yards. His longest was 29 yards and the Eagles were beaten, 27-20.

"There were some things we could do, there were a lot of things they won't let you do," Humphries said. "I guess you can't grow up in this league until you play games like this. The way I feel right now is I wish I could play again tomorrow. I'm ready to get back out there. I just feel we're about to get a string started."

Gibbs had warned several times that Humphries would make some great plays and some terrible ones, and that the Redskins would have to accept some of both.

He had completed 11 straight passes and was throwing for the lead in the fourth quarter Sunday when the ball bounced out of Earnest Byner's hands. But so much revolves around the quarterback's ability to make plays that with Mark Rypien three weeks or so from returning, Humphries' immediate future may be gauged by how he does against teams the Redskins are supposed to beat -- Detroit, Philadelphia and New Orleans.

"I feel really good about Stan being in there," Gibbs said. "He's a young guy. We're going with him and he's going to get a chance to show us what he can do."

Defensive end Charles Mann said that getting ready for Detroit would be no problem, "because Coach Gibbs is a great motivator."

For his part, Gibbs said: "Our team has had some bitter disappointments, and in that, sometimes you get stronger. You're either going to start pointing fingers and turning or get stronger and stronger as it goes. Now, we've got to see what's going to happen. Sometimes the tough times make us a better person and a better team. This team could still have great things in store for it. . . . It's going to be decided on the field and we'll start finding out Sunday in Detroit."

Redskins Notes: Rypien said his left knee had little swelling and soreness after his first on-the-field work. Trainer Bubba Tyer said that if Rypien continues to make progress, he would have no problem with his returning to practice in about 10 days. . . . Linebacker Monte Coleman (sprained right knee) may miss today's practice but should play Sunday. . . . Humphries' sore left shoulder has improved so much that he is not even on the team's injury list.