With rookie Roy Helu leading a revived running game, the Redskins have averaged 125.8 rushing yards over the past four games. (Jonathan Newton/Washington Post)

Good NFL teams are supposed to peak in December, ideally playing their best football as the playoffs approach. Even though the Redskins are assured of missing postseason play for a fourth straight year, players say recent games have shown they could have been a playoff team this season.

" “If we had played like this the whole time, we’d be talking about January,” said defensive end Stephen Bowen.

The Redskins had no problem toppling the division-leading New York Giants, 23-10, on Sunday, and though it was only their second victory in the past four games, a team that sputtered its way through the fall again showed noticeable progress on both sides of the ball.

“I thought we played extremely well as a unit yesterday against a very talented offensive team,” Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said Monday. “That’s coming off three good weeks of moving the ball pretty good.”

The Redskins have topped 100 rushing yards four straight weeks, they’ve won the time of possession battle in three of the past four and Sunday against the Giants they forced more turnovers than an opponent for the first time this season.

“I don’t think it’s just out of nowhere,” said nose tackle Barry Cofield. “I think we’ve been competitive for the past four weeks, for the past month. I think we’re getting better at the right time.”

The modest gains are taking place without some of the Redskins’ best players — Trent Williams, Fred Davis, LaRon Landry, Chris Cooley and Tim Hightower. At a time when the season could have nose-dived, players point out they’re instead playing some of their best football of the year, even if it hasn’t always translated into wins.

And they have a chance to close out the season on a high note. This Saturday the Redskins face Minnesota, which has dropped six straight and hasn’t won a game since October. Then Washington closes out the season against a Philadelphia team that has been inconsistent from week to week.

Shanahan concedes that it’s difficult as a coach to see your team perform well late in the season and not wonder how good it might have been had injuries not struck early.

“That’s a part of the business,” he said. “Some years you’re very lucky. Other years you’re not.”

The Redskins have nine players on injured reserve, including four players who had started on offense this season. Plus, they’re also without Davis and Williams, who were suspended for repeated violations of the league’s drug policy. The result last week was a starting lineup that featured only five of the offensive players from the team’s first meeting with the New York Giants on Sept. 11.

Even though they’re taking the field with replacement parts on both sides of the ball, the Redskins have flipped their stat sheets upside down in recent weeks. In virtually every important offensive category, they’ve posted vast improvements.

In the first 10 games of the season, the offense averaged 313 yards, 16 points and 1.6 touchdowns per game. In the past four, the Redskins have averaged 371 yards, 23 points and 2.3 touchdowns an outing.

The number of sacks per game they give up has been cut in half (from 3.1 to 1.5). But the team’s rushing numbers mark the biggest difference. In the first 10 games, the Redskins averaged only 22.5 carries and 84 yards an outing. With rookie Roy Helu starting in the backfield and the offense not forced to play from behind every Sunday, Washington is averaging 31.5 carries and 125.8 rushing yards in the past four games.

Defensively, the Redskins put together one of their best outings of the season Sunday in New York, pulling down three interceptions, sacking Eli Manning three times and allowing the Giants to reach the end zone just once in four visits inside the Washington 20-yard line.

“If we do our job like today, man, I can’t see us not dominating anybody,” Bowen said in the postgame locker room Sunday.

So what does this recent success mean for the team’s long-term future? Their playoff hopes are already dashed, but coaches and players say late-season wins can build momentum that carries over beyond the offseason.

“Either you get better or you get worse,” Shanahan said. “You’re always hoping your football team is improving, even though you might not have anything to play for except for pride. We’ll get a chance to evaluate those guys on a day-to-day basis and obviously with a couple of games left, see who gives us the best chance to win next year.”

Staff writer Mike Jones contributed to this report.