One More Rival to Go

By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, December 25, 2005

It's the Washington Redskins' most impressive victory of the season, beating the New York Giants to stay in control in the fight for a playoff berth. It wasn't their most lopsided win or their most decisive. But they won even though their starting quarterback, Mark Brunell, was knocked out of the game with a knee injury. They won even though their most complete defensive back, Shawn Springs, lay on the field KO'd for a few moments, long enough for a stadium of 90,447 to go as quiet as a Christmas morning church congregation. They won even though the running game didn't catch fire early and even though the defense wasn't lights out.

The Redskins are where they haven't been in six seasons: alive in January, alive for a spot in the playoffs with one game to play, alive and actually on a little bit of a roll having won four straight when a loss any one of those weeks could have killed the season. They're alive for the division title, alive for a wild-card spot. They're alive with an identity.

They're alive and feeling good about their old-fashioned approach to the game, built around defense, an increasingly punishing offensive line and Clinton Portis. I don't want to hear any more about Portis making too much money, or Portis costing the Redskins too much in the trade with Denver, or Portis's midweek costumes not being funny. When a player runs for 100 yards or more four straight games, when he sticks your chin out and makes the tough runs against the Cowboys and Giants with the season on the line, he can wear a pair of four-inch Jimmy Choo pumps and an evening gown to practice on Thursday.

The Redskins are going to Philly for the regular season finale next Sunday with a plan, some confidence and a team that's pretty darn good -- by NFC standards anyway. "Yes, we're feeling very good about the way we're playing," tackle Jon Jansen said after beating the Giants. "I like the way we're playing and I should mention I like the way we're coaching, too. We struggled with our running game early, but we stuck with the game plan. There have been some times -- and I'm not even talking about this season, specifically -- when we've gotten away from what our personality seems to be. We stuck with what we're supposed to do against a good team and made it work."

The Giants are in no position to disagree, not after the Redskins denied them the chance to wrap up the NFC East title yesterday. "This game," Tiki Barber said, "is about momentum. Washington has the momentum and a deep-seated desire. They have a purpose. It showed in how they played today. They played with a different level of intensity and we didn't match that. This game was for the season to them and they came to play."

It was the second week in which the Redskins had more of what Barber described than the opponent.

After taking care of the Cowboys and Giants in back-to-back weeks, the mission before the team now is to do it a third straight week -- in Philly, at dusk. They'll be drinking in the parking lots by noon and, if possible, throwing snowballs at the field by kickoff at 4:15.

"It's a violent game, a violent place to play," Jansen said.

"The Eagles aren't going to lay down for us," guard Ray Brown said. "Other than a couple of our family members who dare to show up, nobody there is going to be rooting for us. We've got to realize what we're getting into. It'll be like walking into a buzz saw if we're not careful. They're not following any Redskins script."

But the Redskins also know they're fundamentally a better team than they were during that three-game losing streak to Tampa Bay, Oakland and San Diego. What the players are doing well is also enhanced, particularly on offense, by smarter, more creative and more assertive play-calling. As long as Brunell is healthy enough to be effective next week, it even helps the Redskins to have had Patrick Ramsey play well for a stretch against the G-men. Jansen, one of Ramsey's best friends on the team, had to be nervous for his buddy when he had to burn two timeouts within seven seconds, sandwiching an awful incompletion.

"I know people were looking at that stretch thinking, 'Oh, son-of-a-gun, here we go again,' but then he hits the long one to Santana [Moss]," Jansen said. Yes, when the backup quarterback has gotten a little of his groove back, people get justifiably excited. The Redskins have won four straight, a longer streak than any team in the conference except Seattle.

If we're looking at the big picture, there are probably four teams playing better than the others in the NFC: the Seahawks, Bears, Redskins and Buccaneers, and probably in that order.

It's impossible to figure the Cowboys, who dogged it here in Washington last week, then pulled a victory out of the fire in Carolina yesterday. While the Cowboys probably don't deserve a spot in the postseason after last week's chump effort, the fact is they can beat out the Redskins by gliding past the sorry, no-account Rams in Dallas, if the Redskins lose in Philly.

Tampa Bay, having already beaten the Redskins, can't lose out to Washington and should reach 11 victories (the Redskins cannot) by beating the Saints next Sunday.

Carolina, a team everybody seems to like but a team that can't close the deal, has to beat the Falcons in Atlanta.

We won't know about the Bears and Vikings until after their Christmas night games.

All the NFC teams are flawed, really. The Bears, everybody's new favorite now that Rex Grossman is back at quarterback, still have to prove they can field an offense that won't sabotage that defense. It's quite possible, now that the Redskins believe in the way they have to play on offense, that the Redskins are less flawed than the others, even the Seahawks, who have a great player in Shaun Alexander but not a whole lot more.

Still, it comes down to one impossible-to-predict week, another difficult game against a hated rival for the third straight week.

If the Redskins beat the Eagles, they're going to look at this five-game, end-of-season stretch as the stuff championship runs are made of.

If they lose to the Eagles and don't get in, they're going to stare awfully hard at that home-field loss to the Raiders, a tomato can of a team, as the reason they're not in the playoffs.

For the moment, simply having the chance is a very big deal. "We've been in the spot the Eagles are in now for four or five years," Jansen said.

"They can get redemption by beating us. We've had whole Decembers where we were just going home after the final regular season game. Now we've got a shot at the big game. It's been awhile."

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