Win in Tampa, Or Season Over

Tomorrow, the Redskins will face a gang-tackling Buccaneers defense that leads the NFC in defense with both the fewest points and fewest yards allowed.
Tomorrow, the Redskins will face a gang-tackling Buccaneers defense that leads the NFC in defense with both the fewest points and fewest yards allowed. (By Curtis Compton -- Associated Press)
By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, November 24, 2007

Tomorrow's game in Tampa against the Buccaneers will make or break the Redskins' season.

You can't prove it, but if you check the schedules of the teams battling Washington for what will probably be the NFC's last wild-card spot, you certainly can feel it. This is the line-in-the-dirt, no-excuses, must-win game of 2007. After four close defeats, this is the contest the Redskins, as a mere 3 1/2 -point underdog, must salvage to compensate for the fourth-quarter frustrations that have left them with galling losses to the Giants, Packers, Eagles and Cowboys.

Usually, in Week 12, you'd need a crystal ball to make any confident prediction about the final standings on Dec. 30. But this season the NFC is different. The four division leaders are probably safe, either because they're good or their schedules are weak.

The Giants (7-3) with five games left against teams that are .500 or worse, should grab one wild card. That leaves the Redskins (5-5) in a tangled mess with Detroit (6-5), Philadelphia (5-5) and Arizona (5-5) for the other.

But the situation is not nearly as complex as usual. The remaining schedules of the Eagles and Lions are so tough that they are probably dead already. Neither is likely to finish better than 8-8. On the other hand, Arizona has so many games left against crummy opponents that the Cardinals will have a hard time avoiding a 9-7 record.

Sitting squarely in the middle, the Redskins face a schedule that is manageable, but not easy. They'll probably be favored at home against Buffalo and Chicago in their first two games in December. And they can probably lick the Vikings in Minnesota in the next-to-last game. On the other hand, minus burgundy-and-gold-colored glasses, it's easy to see the Redskin losing to the Giants on the road and to Dallas at FedEx in the season finale. Especially if the Cowboys (10-1) need a final win for the best possible postseason seeding.

That scenario leaves a huge red circle around tomorrow in Tampa against the 6-4 Bucs. This is the extra victory, the win that atones for earlier failures, that may make the difference between a 9-7 season that reaches the playoffs -- thanks to the Redskins holding a tiebreaker over Arizona (due to a head-to-head win) -- versus an 8-8 year that will feel like a squandered opportunity.

Go on and doubt. No computer would dare extrapolate so far. Maybe some 4-6 NFC team will win six straight. But I doubt it. The Redskins' future is far easier to anticipate than usual. As a result, this trip to Florida will probably be the game that either haunts the Redskins all winter or ignites them to the postseason.

And the Bucs won't be an easy challenge. They lead the NFC in defense with both the fewest points and fewest yards allowed. Quarterback Jeff Garcia is enjoying a late-career resurgence and has the Bucs in first place with a two-game lead in the lame NFC South.

For the Redskins, none of those factors matter. They need to start climbing and the Bucs are the smallest available mountain. When a team squanders three second-half leads, it simply has to win a tough game on the road and spoil somebody's fun.

The Redskins are lucky to be in such good shape. They got a big drumstick on their plate on Thanksgiving when Brett Favre and the Packers carved up the Lions. Detroit must face two 10-1 teams, Dallas and the Packers in a rematch in Green Bay. Book those losses. The Lions' best hope of a 9-7 finish may be their visit to San Diego where Norv Turner's gentle coaching has brought the Chargers back to the pack. But, don't forget, the Redskins hold a tiebreaker over the Lions, too, thanks to a 34-3 win at FedEx.

Out of habit, Redskins fans may keep a worried eye on Andy Reid's Eagles. Don't bother. Tomorrow, the Patriots will trample Philadelphia. Then the Eagles face three straight games against NFC West leader Seattle (6-4), the Giants and the Cowboys in Dallas. Even if they play decently, the Iggles will be 6-8 and finished as a threat.

You didn't know the Redskins had such a relatively smooth road, did you? Part of the reason is that the Redskins, by accident, already got rid of their three toughest games -- and losses -- in road games at New England, Dallas and Green Bay against teams with a combined 30-2 record. Everyone focuses on Washington's 52-7 loss to the Pats as proof the Redskins can't be too good. But perhaps, as counterbalance, it should be noted that the Redskins had the NFC's two 10-1 powerhouses on the ropes on their own fields, ready for a knockout. Washington won the stat battle against both. So, reverse the argument: How bad can the Redskins be?

However, getting to January will be hard because, just as the schedule is brutal for the Lions and Eagles, it is quite easy for Arizona, which lost to the Redskins, 21-19 , at FedEx. The Cardinals have home games left with lowly San Francisco (2-8), Atlanta (3-8 ) and St. Louis (2-8). Washington doesn't have any games remaining that look so easy -- at least on paper. Arizona also visits fast folding New Orleans (4-6). Uh oh, that looks like a mighty clear path to nine wins, even if the Cards lose at home to the 6-4 Browns and at Seattle.

As the Redskins head to Tampa, they may be tempted to feel sorry for themselves. In addition to players such as Jon Jansen and Carlos Rogers, who are out for the year, or Sean Taylor, Randy Thomas and James Thrash, who will miss this game, the following key players all missed practice at least once this week: Cornelius Griffin, Santana Moss, Antwaan Randle El, Ladell Betts, London Fletcher, Todd Wade, Pete Kendall and Mike Sellers.

Maybe the Redskins should give Jason Campbell his way for the third week in a row and run tons of no-huddle offense to keep the Bucs out of their preferred specialty packages. Maybe Gregg Williams turns loose the blitz machine and hopes Garcia can't stay vertical and conscious long enough to find Joey Galloway deep. Or maybe you just hand out stickers: "Practice random violence and senseless acts of ugliness," then hope for a beautiful edge in turnovers. It's football; when in doubt, blow somebody up.

But whatever the Redskins do, they can't end another Sunday whining, "We let one slip away." At the one-yard line against the Giants, with bungled timeouts against the Eagles, on a gadget-play fumble returned for a touchdown by Green Bay and with an interception in the red zone with 1 minute 50 seconds left in Dallas, all this team's margin of error for one season has been squandered.

Now, their task is as simple as it will be difficult: Victory, don't come home without it.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company