By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Somehow, in a season marked by tragedy, tough losses and injuries, the Washington Redskins find themselves calculating playoff possibilities heading into the last three weeks of the regular season.
If the postseason began today, the Redskins would be on the outside, a game out of the final playoff spot. With three games to play, the Redskins (6-7) trail the New Orleans Saints (6-7) and Minnesota Vikings (7-6) for the NFC's second wild-card position, and even finishing with three straight wins might not be enough to get Washington in.
After losing four in a row through November -- a string that was broken with Thursday's 24-16 victory over Chicago -- the Redskins figured they'd need help to qualify for postseason play. Still, just being in contention with a losing record is some consolation, and the dire state of the NFC is such that only a handful of teams have been mathematically eliminated.
The Redskins were split in their approach to last weekend's games: some players digested every possible playoff permutation, while a few said they did not watch a single play Sunday and Monday. But the chance to rest and recover after playing their second game in five days on Thursday night was welcomed, particularly after coping with the killing and funeral of Sean Taylor.
"The way the NFC has gone this year, there's a lot of parity, so to speak," middle linebacker London Fletcher said with a chuckle as he pondered more descriptive words he could have substituted for parity. "Where we're at right now, having lost four consecutive games and to still be in consideration for a playoff spot is a good thing for us this year. But we need to worry about winning a football game on Sunday."
Indeed, should the Redskins lose Sunday night at Giants Stadium -- Coach Joe Gibbs has not beaten the Giants there since returning to coaching and is 6-10 against the Giants at the Meadowlands -- their odds of reaching the playoffs would dwindle. Winning the remaining three games would be ideal, but several scenarios exist in which the Redskins could still reach the postseason at 8-8, should the Vikings, Saints, Giants (9-4), Arizona Cardinals (6-7) and Detroit Lions (6-7) all falter down the stretch.
After traveling to New York, Washington heads to Minnesota for another Sunday night game -- again with playoff ramifications -- then finishes with NFC-leading Dallas at home (the Cowboys might have clinched home-field advantage for the playoffs by then and choose to rest key starters).
If the season ended now, the Vikings and Giants would be in the playoffs as wild cards, along with division-leading Dallas, Green Bay, Tampa Bay and Seattle.
Most players said they watched games Sunday -- fullback Mike Sellers was among the vocal minority who abstained -- focusing on their NFC East opponents.
"I just couldn't draw myself away from the TV no matter where I was," safety Pierson Prioleau said. "Whether it was at the restaurant, eating dinner or at home."
Wide receiver Antwaan Randle El had a firm grasp on the tiebreaker possibilities at stake. Generally, the rest of the teams in the hunt for the last playoff spot have performed as poorly as the Redskins over the past five weeks (Detroit has lost five in a row, for instance).
"The results have been pretty good for us the last three or four weeks. We just haven't done our part," Randle El said. "Now that we've done our part [by beating Chicago Thursday], it really looks good for us. We've got a chance. I was just rooting for two teams really not winning, and they didn't win, but now we've got to worry about New Orleans, too, and the biggest thing is we've got to worry about ourselves."
The Saints are ahead of Washington on the playoff ladder because they have a better NFC record (New Orleans is 5-4; the Redskins 4-5). Both clubs play only NFC opponents for the rest of their schedule, so the Saints would hold a tiebreaker over Washington should the teams finish with identical records.
The Redskins still could get a wild-card spot under those circumstances if they finish with three straight wins and the Giants lose all three remaining games.
New Orleans is the only 6-7 team over which the Redskins do not own a head-to-head victory (the first and most important tiebreaker). They would leapfrog Minnesota by beating the Vikings on Dec. 23 and finishing with the same record.
Besides merely winning their games, the Redskins will be watching the scoreboard. This Sunday, for example, Arizona faces New Orleans, leaving some in the Redskins' organization a bit confused as to which team to pull for.
A Cardinals win would seem the obvious choice for the Redskins, but Arizona faces a very weak schedule the final two weeks (hosting the Falcons and the Rams) and could finish 9-7, eliminating the 8-8 teams.
"From what I would think we would want Arizona, wouldn't we?" linebacker Khary Campbell said.
"That's the most knowledge I have. I would think we'd root for Arizona, but I know that if we don't take care of our own business, it's not going to matter."