Game of The Week: What If?

By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 28, 2006

In Atlanta, the Falcons lost their fourth straight game Sunday, and the New York Giants blew a 21-point lead in the final 10 minutes in Tennessee, losing their third straight game. Philadelphia, which is without quarterback Donovan McNabb for the rest of the season, lost for the fifth time in six games and Minnesota and St. Louis, once prime wild-card candidates, have combined to lose nine times in their last 11 games.

If they didn't know it before, the Washington Redskins now have a good idea about how much their weak performance this season has cost them. If not for the 25-22 loss at home to the previously winless Tennessee Titans, the Redskins would be 5-6 and in the thick of the wild-card race in the mediocre NFC.

The Redskins, who Coach Joe Gibbs intimated could be evaluating place kickers today with Nick Novak struggling, showed more spirit and determination in Sunday's 17-13 victory over Carolina, but have admittedly allowed much of the schedule to slip away. And the horrendous run by NFC contenders shows the Redskins how they could have been in a completely different position this week.

A year ago the Redskins rallied from a 5-6 start to win five straight games and reach the playoffs for the first time since 1999, but no one would compare this team to that one -- the offense and defense were both producing at a far better rate in 2005. At least the Redskins face only teams ahead of them in the NFC -- Atlanta (5-6), Philadelphia (5-6), New Orleans (7-4), St. Louis (5-6) and New York (6-5) -- and if nothing else can muddle everyone else's record even more.

Why, it's even enough to keep some Redskins players thinking that they can get into the playoffs.

"That's what's so fun about the NFL, you never know what can happen week in and week out," quarterback Jason Campbell said. "Right now we can't count ourselves out of it and we've still got a lot to play for. That's how we have to approach each game. As long as we continue to stick together, it's all about getting hot at the right moment."

Of course, the Redskins would have to maintain a high caliber of play for a prolonged stretch, a departure for them this year. "We haven't really put together two games, period," Gibbs said.

Tailback Clinton Portis -- whose running keyed much of last season's playoff run -- is out for the season following hand surgery, and the defense is ranked 28th in the league. Running the ball, stopping the run and outmuscling opponents at the line of scrimmage are what Gibbs is emphasizing.

"That game [Sunday], if I had to say this is what we believe in, that is what we believe in," Gibbs said. "It was very physical all the way around."

Last season, the Redskins were 10-2 against the NFC, a vital tiebreaker that brought them a wild card; this season, Washington is 2-5 against the conference and 1-3 in the NFC East. Eleven NFC teams have 5-6 records or better and, of those, only Atlanta (3-4) is not 4-4 or better within the conference. That gap might prove the most difficult for the Redskins to bridge.

For as much guarded optimism as there was around Redskins Park yesterday, there is uncertainty as well. With the team unable to carry momentum from game to game -- their emotional, last-second win over Dallas was followed by a blowout loss to Philadelphia, for instance -- no one is speaking brashly about playoff chances. Just putting two straight quality games together is far from a sure thing, and there is no feasible explanation for the Redskins' inconsistency.

"You kind of say, 'Man, I wish we had played like that the whole year,' " linebacker Marcus Washington said of the effort against Carolina. "But I was glad to see it [Sunday] and we know we can do it, so I guess it gives us more confidence. So we'll just try to do it again next week."

The Redskins have a chance to pull ahead of one team solely by winning Sunday. Atlanta has not scored more than 14 points in a game since last month and ranks 31st in passing offense, with Michael Vick completing just 51 percent of his passes. Still, the Falcons lead the NFL with 198 rushing yards per game, running an average of 35 times per game, most in the league. Vick himself rushed for 166 yards Sunday.

"It can go either way," Redskins rookie linebacker Rocky McIntosh said. "They're down and we could go ahead and put the dagger in them . . . or they could come out really hungry, ready to get a win just like us. So we need to go out there and stop number seven [Vick] and take care of business."

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