By Michael Wilbon
Monday, December 19, 2005
There can't be much greater glory in sports, not in the regular season anyway, than crushing a hated rival late in the season with a spot in the playoffs probably at stake. The Redskins beat the life out of the Cowboys yesterday, stampeded Drew Bledsoe and made his teammates look like quitters and stumblebums. It's been a long time since the Redskins so thoroughly dominated a worthy opponent in a game of consequence. And it's been a long time since a Cowboys team with serious aspirations looked like such a chump outfit.
The result of the Redskins' 35-7 victory means the Cowboys struggle forth, mathematically alive but little more than that, having lost three of four, while the Redskins moved into a potential three-way logjam that favors Washington in complicated tiebreaker formulas, though it's still too early to consider them. Most immediately, the Redskins earned the right to play another giant game that could lead to a playoff berth, the Christmas Eve home date with the NFC East-leading New York Giants.
The promise of such an event wouldn't be stop-the-presses news in New England or Philly, but it has been awhile since December games have brought great theater around here. One could make the argument easily and convincingly that this was the Redskins' most meaningful December victory over the Cowboys since Dec. 13, 1992, when a 20-17 victory over Dallas at RFK wound up being the win that nudged the Redskins into the playoffs. It was so long ago, Joe Gibbs hadn't yet retired.
One could make the argument easily and convincingly that this was the Redskins' most significant late-season victory over anybody since Jan. 8, 2000, when they beat the Lions in a first-round playoff game.
With a recent history that flimsy, you don't dare swagger into the building thinking you're going to bring the Cowboys to their knees, not having lost 14 of 16 to them, not when you've beaten them once already and haven't swept them since 1995. So to those who don't paint their faces burgundy and gold or name their dogs "Riggo," this wasn't predictable. It just wasn't. Nothing that had happened this season suggested this game, considering its importance to the playoff race, would be so lopsided and uncompetitive.
The Redskins put together their best game against a non-patsy for the first time in, oh, five years or so. And the Cowboys simply didn't show, which is stunning for a Bill Parcells-coached team. Not even the Redskins could have thought they'd bolt into the next-to-last week of the regular season with this kind of momentum. "I think every one of us expected a close football game," Mark Brunell said.
It's not often that Joe Gibbs glows after a regular season victory, but he did yesterday, saying he was "absolutely thrilled," and that his team had "played the game of our life. It was one of those nights . . . whatever we chose to do seemed to work for us. I didn't envision anything like this happening."
A whole slew of Redskins players and coaches, virtually all of them, can share the glory, but first up for praise has to be the defensive line (and linebacker Marcus Washington) for leaving Bledsoe in a heap as road kill. A corpse would have demonstrated more mobility than Bledsoe. Once, Bledsoe was just the guy you wanted as your quarterback in a game like this on the road against a head-hunting defense. But yesterday, Gregg Williams, Greg Blache and the Redskins defense sacked him, hit him, hurried him, knocked down his passes.
They made him look 100 years old. Phillip Daniels, the Redskins' right defensive end, tied a club record with four sacks, and said the game plan was to stay in Bledsoe's face. "He tends to make mistakes . . . stands in the pocket and holds the ball a lot."
Well, the Redskins didn't give him long to hold it. Daniels, Washington, Cornelius Griffin, Renaldo Wynn and Joe Salave'a stayed in Bledsoe's grill most of the game, which resulted not only in the seven sacks, but in three interceptions and a fumble. Terry Glenn, the receiver Parcells once called "she" when the two were with the Patriots, looked afraid of being hit by Redskins safety Sean Taylor.
The one thing the Redskins have finally established is an identity: they have a great defense, and can generate enough offense through Mark Brunell, Santana Moss, Clinton Portis and Chris Cooley. The loss of guard Randy Thomas to that gruesome fourth-quarter ankle injury is a party-pooper, even if Ray Brown can step in and do good work in long relief. But it appears the offensive players know that if they can produce the league average -- 21 points -- the team can be in pretty good shape because the defense very rarely has a bad night.
As happy as Gibbs was, he's been at this a long, long time. The last time the Redskins obliterated an opponent -- in a 52-17 victory over the 49ers -- they were horrendous the following week, shut out by the Giants in the Meadowlands. Gibbs was careful to emphasize "this is what we can do," but it doesn't mean the Redskins can play this way every week -- or even next week.
It would be completely foolish to think that the Giants will show up as unprepared and as unemotional as the Cowboys did. It's hard to believe the Cowboys put forth such a doggish effort in a December game, which must be why Parcells was so brief with his remarks afterward. Privately, many of the Cowboys had expressed the notion that the Redskins' come-from-behind, 14-13, victory in Texas back in September was a fluke. Well, there was nothing fluky about this, from the beating the defense put on Bledsoe to that beautiful deep ball Brunell threw to Moss early in the game that showed how vulnerable the Dallas secondary is. Asked what he called that long play to Moss, Brunell said, "That was your basic bomb. That's what we've been calling it for years and years. Get the ball up in the air."
Brunell said he believes in "carryover" and that this kind of victory always helps a team feel better about itself. Three straight victories, one over the archrival, and being planted firmly in the playoff race are about as nice a holiday gift as the Redskins could hope to have with two weeks left in the season.