EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) -While Steve Spagnuolo didn't circle the date on his calendar, the New York Giants defensive coordinator has known the importance of Sept. 30 for eight months.
It's the night the Giants (1-2) face the Philadelphia Eagles (1-2) at Giants Stadium, when Spagnuolo will go against his old team and his longtime mentor, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson.
``I said this way back I think when I first came here, that it is like playing a pickup basketball game outside with your brother,'' said Spagnuolo, who was an Eagles assistant for eight years before being hired by the Giants in January. ``Sometimes you try harder to beat them than in a real deal. I am looking forward to it.''
So is Johnson, who wants nothing but the best for his 47-year-old former assistant - except for the weeks the Eagles play the Giants, their bitter NFC East rivals.
``He's a very intelligent guy that worked at his job and coached different positions,'' Johnson said of Spagnuolo, who spent his final three seasons as Eagles linebackers coach. ``I think that helped more than anything else. He coached linebackers; he coached safeties; he coached corners. So, that really helped him to learn the overall scheme.''
Spagnuolo will have to come up with something special this week if the Giants hope to stay in the NFC East race. Philadelphia and New York trail Dallas (3-0) by two games in the division and whoever loses could find themselves three games back.
Stopping the Eagles won't be easy. Philadelphia is coming off a 56-21 thrashing of the Detroit Lions.
Brian Westbrook rushed for 110 yards and two touchdowns, and caught five passes for 111 yards and another score. Receiver Kevin Curtis had 11 catches for a career-best 221 yards and three touchdowns. Donovan McNabb threw for 381 yards and four TDs.
It was the first game in Eagles history that had a 100-yard rusher, a 200-yard receiver and a 300-yard passer in the same game.
``In my opinion it was only a matter of time,'' Spagnuolo said. ``I know they struggled those first two games but you could see it; they were just missing here and just missing there. You knew it was going to happen, but I was hoping it would be like three weeks from now.''
If there is any good news for the Giants, the defense last week mastered Spagnuolo's pressure system, which has many similarities to Johnson's - the players not being one.
After giving up 80 points in losses to Dallas and Green Bay, New York blanked the Redskins in the second half in a 24-17 win that ended with a tremendous goal-line stand.
McNabb said the Giants' defense pressured Redskins quarterback Jason Campbell in the second half, allowing the secondary to make plays.
``Steve has tried to put them in a position to do that, and I think now that they're feeding off of the energy and knowing that coach 'Spags' is trying to do that, good things are happening for them,'' McNabb said.
Most Giants players feel Spagnuolo will help them understand some of the Eagles' tendencies on offense and defense, but not much else. Whatever system Johnson uses to send plays into the defense is bound to be different this week, or it will concealed.
``He is definitely not coming up with any magic for McNabb, like when he licks his fingers he is going to throw a pass to the right,'' Giants defensive tackle Barry Cofield said. ``Nothing too specific. He will let us know about the mind-set of those people over there, a little bit about the personnel and then we have to go out there and execute.''
If the Giants want to beat the Eagles for only the second time in nine games, they are going to have to slow down Westbrook.
In his past eight games against New York, Westbrook, who has been bothered by an abdominal strain this week, has averaged 126.4 yards from scrimmage (rushing and receiving) and scored 10 TDs.
Johnson's defense had nine sacks and limited the Lions to 4-of-14 on third-down conversions last week. The unit also didn't allow a touchdown in the season-opening 16-13 loss to the Packers.
The Eagles will see one change in the Giants' offense this season. With the retirement of Tiki Barber and a knee injury to Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward is the starting halfback.
Ward has gained 273 yards on 54 carries, a 5.1-yard average.
``When they're clicking, they're still gashing teams for 10 (yards),'' Eagles safety Brian Dawkins said. ``With Tiki, maybe it would be a 25-30 yard gain, where now it's a 10-15 yard gain, which is still a good gain.''
Giants quarterback Eli Manning has played well, hitting 61 percent of his passes while throwing six touchdowns, including five to Plaxico Burress.
Burress has battled a sprained right ankle since training camp, but he expects to play in the nationally televised game.
Whatever happens, expect to see Spagnuolo and Johnson embrace after the game.
``Hopefully it will be fun,'' Spagnuolo said. ``I say fun, but you can use that loosely. It is only fun when you win.''

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