EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — To be honest, 5-2 and first place in the NFC East should feel like . . . more. You can see what the Washington Redskins are working toward, what they could be. But in truth they are still a faint outline, a thin sketch of a good team.

For so much of Sunday afternoon at MetLife Stadium against the hapless (and now 1-7) New York Giants, you wondered whether a Redskins offense existed. The question was not sarcastic but metaphysical. It literally struggled to materialize, and Alex Smith seemed more like a wraith, a vapor of a quarterback. But then Adrian Peterson was real enough, with that breakaway 64-yard scoring run with 3:06 to go, and between him and that stalwart, surging, oppressive defense, the Redskins’ substance at last won out.

Still, it would be a serious mistake to overstate the 20-13 victory, as if it were some sort of crucial signpost on the road to greatness. This is a team that still has real gaps to fill in. For long stretches, it did a lot of nothing. The Redskins led just 7-3 at halftime, and they squandered short-field situations, unable to reach the end zone in the second half until Peterson took that sharp, veering turn around the hip of Brandon Scherff to escape into the open field. Had the defensive front led by Matt Ioannidis not clubbed Eli Manning with seven sacks, and had D.J. Swearinger not jumped the poor soul for two interceptions, the Giants would actually have had a chance at the end.

“We’re supposed to win this game,” Swearinger said. “We’re supposed to beat a 1-7 team. Supposed to blow ’em out, truthfully.”

In a game that had both rivalry and divisional import, out popped two sleep machines to punch it out for which could produce the deepest slumber in the audience. By halftime, the Redskins’ offense had averaged just 5.5 yards per pass play. And that was in its good half. Neither team could generate any sense of energy. As halftime approached, it was time to take a deep breath — or take a nap.

Midway through the third quarter, the Redskins’ defense tried its best to create some explosion. Ioannidis and Ryan Kerrigan closed in on Manning and beat him to the turf at his own 2-yard line. The punt from deep in the end zone set the Redskins up at their 45, giving them a half-field head start toward the end zone.

Now was the time to show that this was a real division leader, a team that could put a foot on the neck of the opponent. Instead, the Redskins looked as if they were trying to smother the Giants with a soft pillow. They were held to Dustin Hopkins’s 53-yard field goal.

Next it was Swearinger who tried to point them toward the end zone. He speared a deep errant ball from Manning out of the air and returned the interception 22 yards to the New York 40. Now the Redskins had less than half a field to go. Instead Peterson fumbled when he was tackled for a loss.

Two straight possessions starting at midfield or better had yielded just three points. Things continued on that way. With 10:55 to go in the game, they had third and one at the New York 19. Surely now they would score. Instead, they were flagged for a false start. Another Hopkins field goal: 13-3.

Fortunately, the Giants were no better than a team of tumbling circus clowns. Coming into Sunday, Manning had been sacked 24 times through seven games, and according to Pro Football Focus, he has just a 36.6 passer rating when pressured. The ineptness of the Giants was such that even with first and goal at the Washington 4-yard line, they couldn’t find the end zone.

Then, at long last, came the big play that put this wretched game out of its misery. It started as an ordinary run off right tackle, but as Scherff locked his eyes upfield, Coach Jay Gruden had sudden hope.

“I saw Brandon, ready to hunt,” Gruden said. “Once you see the hole is ready, and Brandon with his eyes on the target, you know something good is about to happen.”

So did Peterson, who accelerated behind him. “I was able to wrap around and take it to the house,” Peterson said.

“Big-time result in a critical situation,” Gruden said.

All there was left to do was sort through the good and the bad of the stat sheet and try to decide what it all meant. On the one hand, it meant a three-game winning streak and a 1 1/2- game lead in the division. That meant a lot to a team that hadn’t won three straight since 2016. “We’ve taken a few punches on the chin,” Gruden said.

It meant the rebuilt defense was worth the investment, and so was Peterson with his 149 yards rushing. It meant that the Redskins had enough grind and grit to win an ugly game on a gray day on the road. “We won’t get too excited, because there’s a lot to work on,” Peterson said. “We’ll take this win for what it is.”

It meant that they had enough across-the-board wherewithal — running game, kicking game, defensive game — to survive yet another Sunday of struggling offensively, while Smith tries to find the sense of rhythm and burst with his receivers that they all know will eventually come.

“Until we get going offensively, we have to win games like this,” Gruden said. “Nothing wrong with it. We’ll take it.”

It meant they are still a work in progress, a half-cooked team that could still swing either way but is leaning heavily toward promise.

“We haven’t won this division yet,” Swearinger said. “We haven’t won a playoff. We haven’t won a Super Bowl. We haven’t really done nothing yet. We’re just turning the stove on. Haven’t put the grease in yet.”