By Michael Wilbon
Monday, November 7, 2005
You don't dare think of the playoffs without first beating division rivals, without winning at home, without rebounding from a humiliating defeat.
A contender's resume has to have something other than running up the score on everybody's favorite homecoming opponent, the sorry, no-account 49ers.
Finally, the Redskins loosened the grip the Eagles have had on their throats the last four years, holding off Philly, 17-10, to keep pace with the contenders, to show that last week's loss was one game and not a trend, and to remain undefeated at home as FedEx Field begins to resemble something of a home-field pit that even conference champions find hostile and uncomfortable.
It shouldn't particularly matter to the Redskins that the Eagles suspended selfish jerk Terrell Owens Saturday and that he didn't play. What more could an opponent ask for than to have a division rival start to implode smack in the middle of a season?
Of course, the rest of us naturally wonder what Donovan McNabb might have been able to do with a first down at the Redskins 13-yard line, more than a minute to play and T.O. lined up to run that fade route to the corner of the end zone.
Perhaps even the egomaniacal Owens wonders, too, if he bothered to watch the game. But McNabb threw incomplete on second and third downs and watched Ryan Clark intercept the final pass, on fourth down, to seal the game.
There no conclusions to draw from last night's victory, other than the Redskins are 5-3 after beating a team they haven't been able to beat, whether we're talking pre-T.O., with T.O. or without T.O. "It's a big deal for us; we all knew it," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "I pretty much had it pegged that if we lose this our back is going to be against it the rest of the way." But Gibbs, wisely, didn't project or declare, not with half the season left.
"What this does," Gibbs said, "is give you a lift." When asked if his team is a strong 5-3 or a soft 5-3, the coach said: "I wouldn't want to characterize ourselves. I just don't know."
All he could know as last night turned to this morning is that his team beat a team it had been unable to beat for a long time. The Cowboys and Eagles really have brought the Redskins much of their misfortune over these last 10-plus years.
The Eagles have positively owned the NFC East for four years. In that time, the Redskins lost seven straight in what used to be a rivalry.
The Eagles have so dominated the matchup that Philly fans don't even bother anymore to beat up people wearing Redskins jerseys when the games are up there. In that time the Eagles have beaten the Redskins close and beaten 'em bad, beat them here and beat them there, beat them every way imaginable.
It's tough to make the case that any game between a pair of 4-3 teams fits into the must-win category. But the fact is, there are a whole lot of teams fighting for precious few playoff spots in the NFC. The Seahawks, Bears, Falcons and Panthers all appear headed for the playoffs, which leaves two spots for the Giants, Cowboys, Eagles, Buccaneers, Rams and Redskins. And the Redskins have to play three of those teams -- Eagles, Bucs and Rams -- on the road.
It's hard to envision the Redskins making up ground in those road games if they hadn't beaten the Eagles while Philly is in such upheaval, having to play on the road without the team's biggest offensive weapon: T.O. Okay, it's not the same as getting to play the Falcons without Michael Vick, but it's an advantage, plain and simple, not to have to face Owens, whose seven-game statistics project to 107 catches for more than 1,700 yards over a full season.
But it was McNabb, after throwing for 304 yards, who said: "Obviously, it's tough losing a guy of his caliber, of his ability. But we might be better off. We're 4-4, not 1-7. It's important for guys in the locker room to understand we win together, we lose together. Tonight, we played as a team."
Brian Westbrook, who made it very clear he likes T.O., nonetheless said, "It has to be a team, not one person and 52 others."
It was evident from listening to various Eagles, even the guys who like him personally, that they're sick of T.O. (Why more players haven't confronted T.O. and publicly defended McNabb and the team from T.O.'s constant and lunatic criticisms may speak to a lack of strength in that locker room.) Don't count on him coming back immediately, and perhaps not at all, even though he changes the game so dramatically just by being on the field. The Eagles didn't throw the ball down the field much at all because they couldn't. T.O. is their only field-stretcher. Yes, the rookie from Georgia, Reggie Brown, did a nice job taking a 15-yard toss and carrying it 56 yards for the touchdown that put Philly ahead 7-0 late in the first quarter. But there was so little downfield yield after that for the Eagles.
And since the Eagles throw the ball 73 percent of their plays from scrimmage (a league-high) and don't even pretend they can run the ball with any power or efficiency, defending short and medium-range passes was about all the Redskins defense had to worry about. In the absence of T.O. it was a very nice move by management to sign Westbrook, the kid from DeMatha, to a five-year, $25 million contract extension, on a day he returned to suburban Maryland to play before his homies. The Eagles knew they needed a lift last night. But Westbrook's 17 carries produced only 24 rushing yards.
As resourceful as the Eagles are -- and they've had to be to reach the NFC championship game four straight years -- the Redskins had to beat a familiar opponent reduced to one dimension.
The Redskins, no matter how pathetic they looked in Giants Stadium last week, certainly have dimensions. If Clinton Portis can't run it in, then Mike Sellers certainly can. The guy is 6 feet 3 and 278 pounds of rock. His touchdown got the Redskins a 10-7 lead. He hurts people, which is especially important against the Giants, Cowboys and Eagles because it grows tiresome trying to tackle Sellers after awhile. It's a job, a nasty job not everybody is equipped to do.
The field is big enough for the both of them, as was demonstrated late in the third quarter when Portis ran six yards for the touchdown that broke the tie and put the Redskins ahead, 17-10, with 3 minutes 39 seconds to play in the third quarter, setting up the final drama, the suspense we've come to expect whenever the Redskins have a lead on the Eagles.
"Maybe," Mark Brunell said, "we'll look back at this game as a defining moment. At the midpoint, we're 5-3. Hopefully, we can build some momentum off this one. I know that the team is on a high right now."