If the hair on the back of your football-loving neck is standing up, if you can’t wait for the Dallas flippin’ Cowboys to get to FedEx Field next Sunday for a winner-take-all game for the NFC East division title, then you’re far from alone. Every player in the amazed, delighted and semi-stunned locker room of the Washington Redskins is right there with you, their faces in wide grins after a sixth straight victory, 27-20, over the Philadelphia Eagles here on Sunday.
Anticipation for the Cowboys’ visit seems almost excessive, until you analyze how rare this particular set of circumstances actually is. When was the last time that the Redskins entered the last week of the regular season facing a home game with a head-to-head match to determine which team would finish first in the NFC East or, before that, in the old NFL Eastern Conference? Answer: Never. As in: Zero.
There have been complex, multi-scenario last-day finishes. And in 1939, the Redskins had a winner-take-all game against the Giants for the right to play for the world championship — but it was in New York.
So excuse the Redskins their jubilation. Or join it.
“Pandemonium at FedEx Field. The way you like it. It’s definitely going to be a playoff atmosphere,” said defensive back DeAngelo Hall, who invited the NFL to reschedule the game from 1 p.m. to the marquee 8:30 p.m. time slot in order to maximize television ratings (a decision they indeed made later Sunday night): “Let’s go ahead and flex this game. And we’ll make it real nice.
“Absolutely. We want to be the only show on TV. That’s a good feeling. Prime time, baby.”
Should the Redskins lose to Dallas, there are still ways they could make the playoffs, but only if multiple other teams lose. “Man, I just know we need to win next week,” said linebacker London Fletcher, dismissing all the permutations. “Tough life, tough game. You don’t get a chance to exhale.”
So, for the rest of the week, much of Washington will hold its breath.
The Redskins have had bigger games than their meeting with the Cowboys, including battles to see who would go to the Super Bowl. But after 20 years as the weakest of teams, by far, in the NFC East, this is the season, led by rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, when the Redskins feel they can reverse that division dominance. Since ’91, the Eagles, Cowboys and Giants have gone to the playoffs 12, 11 and nine times respectively. The Redskins: three. Is the pecking order about to flip?
Just 35 days ago, the Redskins were 3-6 and couldn’t get the time of day. Now, they see omens of a different future wherever they look. The showdown with the Cowboys “is what makes the NFL great. All the guys are excited,” said nose tackle Barry Cofield, whose deflected pass led to an easy interception for Fletcher that set up the Redskins’ first touchdown.
That seems an extreme goal for a team coming off a 5-11 season, especially since the Redskins depend so heavily on rookies. Against the Eagles, RGIII, playing with a knee brace after missing one game, threw two touchdown passes and had a 102.4 quarterback rating, virtually identical to his efficiency before he suffered a sprained ligament two weeks ago. Alfred Morris rushed for another pounding, contact-seeking, 91 yards, which gives him an utterly unexpected total of 1,413 for the season.
And place kicker Kai Forbath, picked up midseason, added two field goals on a windy day to make him 17 for 17. No kicker had ever started an NFL career with such a streak. Now, he has a ball headed to the Hall of Fame.
Without doubt, these are giddy days for the Redskins, who have had only two winning streaks of more than five games in 20 years and only four in the past 30 years. But in the NFL, there actually are such things as “red-hot” teams that believe the breaks of the game, and the big plays that need to be made, are finally rolling their way. Partly, it’s illusion. But it also tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“They expect to win the close games. That’s what’s different now. That’s where you feel really good,” Coach Mike Shanahan said. “Earlier [this season] we lost a few of those, games we had control of but couldn’t finish.”
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