By Larry Fine
EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey (Reuters) - The New York Jets and New York Giants are on pace to reach the National Football League playoffs and both are guarding against Sunday ambushes by potential spoilers before the Big Apple teams clash next week.
The Giants (7-6), coming off a last-minute win against the division-rival Dallas Cowboys, host the Washington Redskins (4-9), while the Jets (8-5) visit the Philadelphia Eagles (5-8).
At present, the Jets would possess an AFC wildcard berth in the postseason, and the Giants would claim their division title through a tiebreaker they hold over the Cowboys.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin said the Redskins, who beat his team in the season opener, have been playing better than their losing record indicates.
"Don't be fooled by the record," Coughlin said on Wednesday at the Giants practice facility. "Washington has played very, very well. They've given everybody their A-game and taken literally all but a couple of these games right to the wire."
Last week, Washington fell to the AFC East-leading New England Patriots, narrowly failing to force overtime despite driving within five yards of the end zone at the final whistle.
The Jets play an Eagles team that marked quarterback Michael Vick's return to the lineup after being sidelined with broken ribs by sinking the Miami Dolphins.
"This is going to be a huge challenge for us," Jets coach Rex Ryan said about a team that boasts Vick, running back LeSean McCoy and wide receiver DeSean Jackson.
"(They are) the fourth-rated offense in the league, the 11th-rated defense in the league and they probably have as many explosive playmakers as anybody we'll face."
The Giants have faltered against struggling opponents this season, losing at home to the Seattle Seahawks in Week Five and to Philadelphia at home last month during a four-game skid.
"The most important game of the season is right now," Giants quarterback Eli Manning said about the Redskins. "We know it's a talented team, a team that beat us earlier in the season. We know they play great defense."
Washington coach Mike Shanahan said playing hard through the end of the schedule was a test of character for a sub-.500 team that would love to put a dent an opponents' playoff hopes.
"You just want to get back on the winning track. You hope your team has enough character to keep on playing hard, and playing well," Shanahan told reporters in a conference call.
"You know a lot of teams are playing for something, as we know the Giants are this week. We just would like to show them, show our fans, that we're going to go out there and give everything we got and hopefully be the spoiler."
While Manning has enjoyed his best season as a passer, the once-proud Giants defense has faltered, yielding costly yardage through the air with a defensive secondary prone to mistakes in coverage that have allowed big scoring plays.
"We have to play more attention to detail in our assignments," said defensive back Antrel Rolle. "It's just a couple of plays that happen that you can't allow."
The defensive-minded Jets have been riding a hot stretch, scoring 99 points in winning their last three games.
Coach Ryan boiled down the challenge his Jets face in trying to hold down the Vick-led Eagles: "That team is absolutely loaded and got as much speed as any team in the league. We gotta get our track shoes for that game."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)