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Heeding the Writing On the Board

By Michael Wilbon
Monday, December 12, 2005

TEMPE, Ariz. Very quietly and discreetly, one Redskins player after another would ask a reporter or cameraman, "What did the Cowboys do?" and "Are the Giants really in overtime?" Their game over, the Redskins felt it was permissible to inquire as they dressed following a rare victory here in the desert. Consecutive losses to the Buccaneers, Raiders and Chargers pushed the Redskins to the back of the playoff pack, and consecutive victories over the Rams and Cardinals force them to do two things: win every game left on the schedule and get help.

The holiday season coincides with scoreboard watching season unless you're the Colts or Seahawks, and you've already clinched a spot in the playoffs with three weeks remaining. The Redskins, even after beating the Cardinals, haven't clinched anything but three weeks of anxiety. Win and get help, win and get help, win and get help. Portis, after inquiring about the Cowboys game, said: "We really shouldn't be in this scramble. But we know how we get there: turnovers and penalties. If we don't do those two things, teams can't play with us. Why let it come down to the wire?"

A photo finish at the wire, almost certainly on the final day of the season -- New Year's Day at Philly -- is as good as the Redskins can reasonably hope for, and it could be a lot worse. A loss against either the Cowboys next week or the Giants on Christmas Eve will severely hurt their chances of reaching the playoffs. That means, in essence, the Redskins started the playoffs in Arizona. While the Redskins could lose a game and still make the postseason, they have to take the approach that they're in the single-elimination portion of the season.

Coach Joe Gibbs made it a point last week, as we'd expect, to warn his players against thinking about what the others in the playoff chase are doing. And Gibbs said immediately after the game he'll make the same point early this coming week. He said he'll tell his team: "If you do anything different [than make the upcoming a game a priority], then we're going to be in trouble. If we can't get that one, we're going to be in real jeopardy."

And while each player said basically that, it ignores human nature. "It's hard," Jon Jansen said, "but we don't have a choice."

Late in the second half, with no action whatsoever going on inside Sun Devil Stadium, the mostly partisan Redskins crowd went crazy when the scoreboard showed the Cowboys were losing at home to the Chiefs. "There's nothing going on down on the field," Jansen said, "and you hear that big noise. You know it's probably one of two things."

The Giants were trailing.

Or the Cowboys were trailing.

Of course, the NFC East teams aren't the only ones fighting to get in.

Since Seattle has clinched the NFC West division title, that leaves eight teams jockeying for the remaining five NFC playoff spots. Those teams are the Bears, Panthers, Buccaneers, Falcons, Vikings, Cowboys, Giants and Redskins. Presuming the Falcons beat the Saints Monday night in Atlanta, seven of those eight teams will enter next week with at least eight wins. The only team with seven wins will be the Redskins, which underscores how precarious their position is.

It was precarious, in fact, in Arizona when the Cardinals took a 13-10 lead, however briefly. If it appeared the Redskins played with a certain sense or urgency, it's because they did. "We didn't want that game -- Dallas -- to be meaningless," Portis said. "Nobody wanted the season to end today."

Of the eight aforementioned teams, none has a schedule that appears too forgiving. Tampa (9-4) gets the Saints and the Falcons at home and the Patriots on the road. Carolina (9-4) also gets to play the Saints once but also has Dallas and Atlanta. The Vikings (8-5), now the hottest team in the NFC, get a visit from the Steelers next week, but after that play the struggling Ravens in Baltimore and finish with a visit from the Bears (9-4). The team with the toughest schedule has to be Atlanta, which goes to Chicago next week, to Tampa the week after that and finishes with Carolina at home.

The Cowboys (8-5) don't exactly have a picnic, having to play at Washington and at Carolina. But they do finish at home with the Rams.

The Giants (9-4) host the Chiefs and visit Washington. But a season finale at Oakland has to help nearly as much as getting a ninth home-game gift from the NFL, which moved the first Saints home game to Giants Stadium in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Every other team in the NFC playoff race ought to scream their fool heads off over that absurdly unfair advantage.

Could the Redskins overtake the Cowboys? Yes, especially if Dallas then goes and loses at Carolina.

Clearly, some teams most folks have penciled in for a victory or two will lose. And some teams folks have running the table or winning certain home games are going to lose shockers.

If you want a scenario many would consider unlikely, how about the Bears losing two of their final three while the Redskins win their final three? If both go 10-6, the Redskins would beat out the Bears for the wild-card spot (with the Vikings winning the division) because the Redskins win the tiebreaker by virtue of head-to-head.

The big question concerning the Redskins is whether they're capable of beating the Cowboys and Giants. The Redskins still couldn't generate 20 points, even against the Cardinals. Shawn Springs, their best cornerback, has a hyperextend back and a groin strain. Chris Samuels has a sprained knee. On the other hand, the Redskins can run the ball (as long as the play-callers cooperate) effectively. The defense has played well for four consecutive weeks. And special teams, as evidenced by Antonio Brown's 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, are playing better than at any time the past couple of seasons.

Still, the notion the Redskins can win five straight to end the season strains credibility, considering they haven't beaten a good team since Philly in Week 9 -- or the Seahawks in Week 4 if you factor in the Eagles were playing their first game without Terrell Owens. The Redskins have lost to the last five credible teams they have faced: Kansas City, Denver, the Giants, Tampa Bay and San Diego. The Rams and Cardinals, the last two Redskins victims, aren't in that class. But at the very least, with three weeks remaining, the Redskins have worked themselves into this scramble, when two short weeks ago it looked like they'd be finishing the season closer to the likes of the Rams and Cardinals than to the playoffs.

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