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Washington Redskins’ NFC East title is just the team’s latest unexpected surprise

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The best Washington Redskins regular season in 21 years ended as it started: With the team’s fans eagerly awaiting the next unexpected surprise.

From its smashing opening victory over New Orleans to a good-enough closing act in Sunday night’s 28-18, NFC East-clinching win against Dallas at chilly FedEx Field, Washington showed talent and resiliency missing from pro football in these parts for a long, long time.

Foremost, the season was a success because quarterback Robert Griffin III established himself as one of the NFL’s brightest new stars. Even while slowed because of a knee injury he suffered late in the season, Griffin inspired his teammates and long-suffering Redskins supporters to dream big again. Griffin also had a lot of help as the Redskins closed the season with seven consecutive victories. Rookie running back Alfred Morris was always ready when called.

With Griffin still not in top form against Dallas, Washington relied on Morris. All he did was set career-high totals with 200 yards rushing and three touchdowns en route to breaking Clinton Portis’s single-season Redskins rushing record.

Washington’s defense, which no football fan would confuse with that of the 1985 Chicago Bears, got the job done during the streak. Sunday was no exception, though there were some scary moments when Dallas trimmed the Redskins’ lead to three points with fewer than six minutes to play.

The Redskins (10-6) matched their longest streak during the regular season since they reeled off seven consecutive victories in Weeks 2 through 9 of the 1996 season. Since 1992, the Redskins have won 10 games in a season twice previously (1999 and 2005). But this season was the first during that span in which a franchise quarterback emerged around whom the Redskins could build long term.

In his third season in Washington, Coach Mike Shanahan finally rediscovered his winning touch. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan proved he’s much more than simply Mike’s son. Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett delivered one of the best coaching performances of his career and Morris showed that standout players are available even in the lowest rounds of the draft.

Griffin, however, was the engine that powered the Redskins’ resurgence from 3-6 to the top of the NFC East. He’s the primary reason Washington is headed back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2007 season.

The franchise’s future appears bright because the Redskins hit the jackpot when they drafted Griffin. Let’s take a look at who cashed in the most — and what’s ahead next week in the first round of the playoffs against Seattle:

The biggest winner

Washington’s principal owner since 1999, Snyder had little to show for the millions he lavished on players. His method of roster building often produced big headlines during free agency and few victories on the field. Along the way, Snyder drew the ire of Redskins fans for, well, way too many things to mention in this space.

Clearly, Griffin helped to improve Snyder’s image one victory at a time. Redskins fans were happier this season than they have been since Joe Gibbs clutched his third Lombardi Trophy. Happy fans tend not to dwell on past mistakes (Jim Zorn, Albert Haynesworth, Steve Spurrier, etc.) and live in the present. That’s great for Snyder.

Redskins people tell you that Snyder truly has backed off. Mike Shanahan runs the football operation without interference. Most Redskins head coaches under Snyder haven’t been as fortunate.

It’s important to remember, though, that Snyder approved the record price of those four high-round draft picks it cost to get Griffin. He deserves credit for that.

Regaining his rep

There’s no getting around this: Shanahan’s first two seasons were a disaster.

Even factoring in the mess the head coach inherited (the team’s 2008 draft was awful), it was reasonable for Snyder to expect more from Shanahan than a record of 11-21. Also, the Donovan McNabb debacle and the Rex-Beck fiasco hurt Shanahan’s credibility.

Nothing like a uniquely gifted quarterback to get a two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach back on track. Some would argue that any coach could have won with Griffin, whose combination of arm strength, smarts and speed — he was an Olympic-caliber hurdler — sets him apart from other outstanding first-year players at his position such as Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson.

Don’t buy that. Mike and Kyle Shanahan changed their offense significantly (most teams don’t use college-style option plays) to accentuate what Griffin does best, which eased Griffin’s transition to the NFL. Usually, Mike Shanahan waits until a quarterback proves himself in the offense for at least a season before tailoring it to a quarterback. He broke his rule with Griffin because he believed Griffin would be worth it. He nailed that one.

Sixth-round gem

Morris, who finished the regular season with 13 total touchdowns, broke numerous Redskins records along the way to establishing the new franchise rushing mark. He also finished second in the NFL in rushing to Adrian Peterson.

Griffin benefited from the Shanahans’ decision to incorporate option plays into the team’s base offense. Early in the season, opponents were so worried about Griffin that Morris had big running lanes in the middle of the line and on plays toward the sideline.

When Griffin’s knee forced him to slow down, Morris, at times, carried the offense. The 1-2 punch of Morris and Griffin — who set an NFL rushing record for rookie quarterbacks — enabled Washington to set a new team record in the running game.

You again

In its past two playoff appearances, Washington traveled to Seattle. And twice the Seahawks ended the Redskins’ season.

But that was way back during the 2005 and 2007 seasons — essentially a lifetime ago in the fast-changing NFL. In fact, only tight end Chris Cooley, linebacker London Fletcher, wide receiver Santana Moss, linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, defensive lineman Kedric Golston, safety Reed Doughty and linebacker Chris Wilson remain on the roster from the ’07 squad — which was led by former head coach Joe Gibbs in the final season of his second stint with the team — that lost in the first round of the playoffs.

This time, Seattle will have to make the cross-country trip, play in a different time zone and face what should be a pumped-up home crowd for the first postseason game at FedEx Field since the 1999 season.

You can count on the game being hyped as a matchup between two of the top quarterbacks in an outstanding rookie class.

Seattle’s Wilson hasn’t been as productive as Griffin for the entire season. Wilson was, however, one of the league’s best quarterbacks, regardless of experience, in the second half of the Seahawks’ schedule.

Each team is among the best in the game at running the ball. Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch finished one spot behind Morris in rushing.

The big difference between the teams is on defense. Seattle is great at it. The Redskins, well, not so much.

Of course, the Redskins were much better at everything on defense during the streak (cornerback DeAngelo Hall had his best game of the season Sunday). And as we’ve come to learn with this bunch, anything is possible.

The takeaway

The turnaround is now complete. Washington has rolled into the postseason hotter than any team not named the Denver Broncos. For the Redskins, one thrilling ride has finished. And another may just be beginning.

For previous columns by Jason Reid, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.

More on the Redskins : Video: The Takeaway from Sunday’s victory Game summary: Redskins 28, Cowboys 18 Boswell: Rookie Morris finds his calling Morris carries Redskins with career night And the rookies shall lead them . . . to the playoffs Analysis: A long-awaited show of talent and resiliency Griffin isn’t quite himself, but he’s good enough Grade RGIII’s performance vs. the Cowboys For Cowboys, another frustrating finish Redskins’ blitz forces Romo into key mistakes Bog: Redskins-Cowboys best and worst Photos: Scenes from FedEx Field First-round postseason schedule Couch Slouch: The luck of Bill Belichick Bog: Redskins NFC East title gear for sale Redskins schedule and results

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