By Paul Dottino
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The arrow on the Giants’ caliber of play may be trending upward, but they’ve only got a one-game lead in the NFC East heading into their crucial game against the Washington Redskins on Sunday.

Is it an important game? Very much so and coach Tom Coughlin has made sure to remind his players of how fragile their hold on first place is at 5-5 and how they don’t want to find themselves scoreboard watching in December.

The anticipated return of cornerback Prince Amukamara and outside linebacker J.T. Thomas to the starting lineup and the continued improvement of defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul ought to strengthen the defense, while Hakeem Nicks’ return adds another reliable receiving threat. However, medical issues continue to plague the offensive line and tight end Larry Donnell (neck).

A quick glance at the Giants’ 32-21 home victory over the Redskins in Week 3 reminds us that Rashad Jennings got the day going with a blocked punt for a safety and wide receiver Rueben Randle produced his only 100-yard game of the season. The Giants methodically pulled away from the mistake-prone Redskins, who are 4-1 (with four straight wins) at home this season.

Here are three key matchups to watch in this game:

1. Giants WRs Odell Beckham and Randle vs. Redskins CBs DeAngelo Hall and Bashaud Breeland. Although the Redskins have yet to give up a 300-yard passing game, they have allowed 20 TDs, including 10 against their blitz (tied for third in the league). They prefer to play cushion and zone, but the big plays are there to be hand whenever the opponent wants to get aggressive — as the Giants found out in Week 3. Breeland has been beaten for six scoring strikes (tied for second in the league) and Chris Culliver five (tied for eighth). With Culliver now on injured reserve, the aging DeAngelo Hall will likely be pressed into a starting role. Randle roasted Breeland for a juggling 41-yard sideline score and finished the day with 116 yards on seven catches in seven targets. Beckham added seven grabs (on nine targets) for 79 yards, including a 30-yard post-pattern TD while burning Breeland in the fourth quarter.

2. Giants MLB Jasper Brinkley vs. Redskins RBs Alfred Morris and Matt Jones. The Redskins’ best chance to win begins with establishing a strong running game. But they are 25th in the league in rushing (95.3 yards per game) and their inconsistent attack has been held under 60 yards five times this season. Morris (404 yards, 3.6 per carry) has yet to run for a touchdown and Jones (332, 3.7) is tied for second in the NFL with four lost fuumbles. They each have one 100-yard game to their credit. It’s critical for the Redskins to get them going in order to take the pressure off quarterback Kirk Cousins, who’s at his best when playing a supplemental role in the offense. Brinkley has been a strong addition to the Giants’ interior rush defense (19th, 111 ypg) in the two games since he became a starter.

3. Giants LT Ereck Flowers and RT Marshall Newhouse vs. Redskins OLB Ryan Kerrigan. Kerrigan can be a dangerous pass rusher, but he’s been limited to 4 1/2 sacks because the Redskins are not a heavy blitz team — unless they are backed up in their own red zone — and he has often been overpowered in one-on-one matchups. The Redskins will flop him off both edges (he likes to play wide) and stunt him to the inside, attempting to free him up. The Giants must maintain their poise and understand that they can control Kerrigan — his stat line showed one tackle in Week 3 — so there is no need to overreact. The Giants’ lineman must instead hold their ground with the understanding that they don’t need to be fancy to win this matchup.

PREDICTION: Giants 31, Redskins 20

Follow Paul on Twitter at @GiantsWFAN