- Ohm Youngmisuk, ESPN Staff Writer
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LANDOVER, Md. -- With a chance to take a firm grip on the NFC East and put Robert Griffin III in their rearview mirror, the New York Giants did what they love to do -- they took the hardest way possible.
When the Giants put their minds to it, they are capable of being the best team in the NFL. But they also are exceptionally good at making life difficult when given the chance to do the opposite.
With a golden opportunity to take a two-game cushion in the division and stiff-arm the Redskins into basically next season, the Giants put the division back in play with a 17-16 loss to the Redskins on Monday night.
With four games left, the Giants (7-5) are clinging to a one-game lead over the Cowboys (6-6) and Redskins (6-6).
It's typical of the Giants -- just when they look ready to be a dominant team after destroying Green Bay, they stumble with a frustrating loss in the division and give themselves little wiggle room down the stretch.
It's almost as if the Giants wouldn't have it any other way. If the Giants had a GPS guiding them through the football season, they'd always seem to choose the longest route with the most winding, treacherous turns.
"We have been down this road before," defensive captain Justin Tuck said. "It is always tough. Honestly, I like it that way. I like the fact that we have to play our A-game from here on out. I think we play good in that role."
The Giants all remained confident after the loss, knowing exactly what position they have put themselves in. Tuck is right. They were in a worse position last season at 7-7 and still won the Super Bowl.
The Giants have lost three of their past four games, and their schedule isn't getting any easier. Next week, the Giants have Drew Brees and the Saints to contend with before traveling to Atlanta and Baltimore before finishing with Philadelphia at home.
They all are winnable games, but do you think the Giants are going to win out? If the defending champs can do that, they will win the NFC East and start their title defense in the playoffs red hot.
But the problem is, we never know which team to expect on any given weekend. The Giants are capable of dismantling the 49ers and Packers. And then they can fall apart in the second half, like they did Monday night.
As much as the Redskins and Griffin deserve credit for making all the necessary plays to win the game, the Giants found ways to beat themselves, too.
They couldn't get out of their own way with nine penalties -- two of them being absolute offensive killers in the fourth quarter.
After the Redskins took a 17-16 lead with 11:31 remaining, David Wilson returned the kickoff to midfield only to have it brought back to the Giants' 8-yard line due to holding.
The play calling then got a bit conservative, as the Giants called two running plays for a total of 6 yards before Eli Manning was sacked for a 7-yard loss.
After the Giants' defense got Washington to punt, the Giants opted to run on the first two plays of their drive again. A horse collar penalty called against Washington gave the Giants the ball at their own 43. After two incompletions, Manning hit Martellus Bennett for a first-down pass, only to see it wiped out by another holding penalty.
Instead of a first-and-10 at the Redskins' 46 with 4:32 left, the Giants dug themselves into a third-and-20 hole. They ended up punting after a short pass to Ahmad Bradshaw gained just 4 yards.
"We move the ball, then we got a penalty and then another penalty and then another penalty," right guard Chris Snee said. "We really shot ourselves in the foot."
That was the last time Manning had the ball in his hands, as Griffin and Alfred Morris pounded the Giants into submission.
It wasn't the way Tom Coughlin envisioned this game ending, not after how his team dominated the ball in the first half.
The Giants held the ball for nearly 21 of the 30 first-half minutes. They converted eight of 10 third downs. Bradshaw had 77 yards rushing, and Manning had the Giants consistently driving.
The game plan was to keep the ball out of RG3's hands, and it worked. Only problem is, the Giants didn't have enough points to show for their first-half play, as they led 13-10 at intermission. Six penalties in the half did not help the cause.
The Giants added another field goal in the third, but the bleeding had begun, as they couldn't stop the Redskins' option rushing attack. The Redskins' rookie tandem of Griffin and Morris combined for 101 yards rushing in the third quarter alone.
Washington took a page out of the Giants' playbook and started eating up the clock with long drives that had the Giants' linemen bent over gasping for air.
Then the Giants had those two killer penalties in the fourth and couldn't get a stop at the end, and their division lead suddenly was down to one game.
"This is not real complicated," Coughlin said. "I don't know what happened in the second half. They certainly didn't come out and play. Penalties, sloppy football."
"We aren't going to beat anybody with 16 points," Coughlin added.
The Giants were not shaken or discouraged afterward. For better or for worse, they know they can be taken to the brink and still win it all.
They certainly earned the right to be confident with their championship pedigree. And maybe the harder road is really the only road for Coughlin's team to take to the Super Bowl after doing it in 2007 and last season.
"We still feel comfortable where we are," Tuck said, repeating a sentiment expressed by several of his teammates. "It's still a one-game lead. We have a lot of confidence being in this situation because we have been here before.
"That is not to say that everything is going to work out in our favor like it did last year," Tuck continued. "But we got confidence in the fact that we have done this before and we don't see any reason why we won't be able to bounce back from this."