January Arrives Early

Vikings linebacker, former Maryland star E.J. Henderson upends the Bears' Kyle Orton, whose late-game interception ended Chicago's last chance.
Vikings linebacker, former Maryland star E.J. Henderson upends the Bears' Kyle Orton, whose late-game interception ended Chicago's last chance. (By Jonathan Daniel -- Getty Images)
By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, December 18, 2007

MINNEAPOLIS Nearly as sweet as the NFL playoffs is the desperation that precedes them. We saw it Sunday night in the Meadowlands, where the more desperate team, the one that simply couldn't afford to lose, beat the one that didn't have that sense of urgency -- yet. The playoffs may not begin until the first Saturday of January but don't kid yourself. Single elimination is here, or so teams feel going into the final two weeks of the regular season.

The Minnesota Vikings were as desperate Monday night as the Washington Redskins were Sunday night. There are no Patriots in the NFC. There are no Colts. It's quite possible there's nobody as good as the Jaguars. The Vikings played like a team that just wants to get in the tournament, coming from behind to beat the Chicago Bears, 20-13. The Vikings are flawed, challenged to throw the ball like a professional offense should. Yet, they also played like a team that knows the conference contenders aren't that much better than the pretenders.

Nothing that happened here Monday night in this crazy dome should discourage the Washington Redskins, other than that the Vikings won to improve their record to 8-6 and stay a full game ahead of the 7-7 Redskins and 7-7 Saints in the race for a wild-card spot.

You know what this means, right? The Redskins' game here Sunday against the Vikings amounts to single elimination, at least for the Redskins. Beat Minnesota and they're alive down to the final drop, the season finale at home against Dallas. Lose, and thanks for playing.

The good news for the Redskins is that they can beat the Vikings. Yes, the Vikes are hot; they've won five straight games. They've got Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor running the ball and an increasingly contentious defense. They'll be playing with a real home-field advantage.

But.

They've got a kid named Tarvaris Jackson who is, well, the NFC North version of Eli Manning, without the good days. He threw three interceptions to the Bears, two of them inexcusable. Jackson tried to give away the game but the Bears are no longer good enough to do anything with the gift. The Redskins, however, are good enough.

There are members of the Bears, who played the Redskins just 11 days earlier, who think Clinton Portis and Ladell Betts can run on the Minnesota defense. No question that Todd Collins's best, from what we've seen in his two appearances, is better than Jackson's best, which hasn't been on display much. The Redskins' defense ought to be able to do to Jackson pretty much what it did to Manning. The Redskins can beat the Vikings by loading up on Peterson and Taylor and forcing Jackson to beat them throwing, which he can't.

But even if the Redskins win, there's a little more to reaching the playoffs than that.

The Cowboys' loss Sunday might have made the Redskins feel good -- the Redskins hate the Cowboys more than the Eagles, don't they? -- but it likely didn't help Washington.

Here's why: If the Cowboys had won and stayed ahead of the Packers at the top of the NFC, then won again at Carolina, they would have wrapped up home field throughout the NFC playoffs, one week before traveling to Washington for a meaningless season finale. The Cowboys, remember, beat the Packers during the regular season and own the head-to-head tie-breaker. With a tie ensured, Dallas could have rested its starters in the final week, giving the Redskins an obvious advantage. But now, with that loss to Philly, a Cowboys loss could put them behind the Packers, meaning the NFC championship game, should they get that far, would be played in Green Bay.

To avoid that the Cowboys might need to win at Carolina and at Washington to stay ahead of the Packers. Dallas has tangible incentive. All hands have to be on deck. It's not that the Redskins can't beat a fully motivated Cowboys team playing its starters the whole way. But you'd rather not have to.

Of course, the primary thing for the Washington Redskins is to simply make it to that season finale against the Cowboys with a chance to get into the playoffs. For the first time since their early-season game against the Patriots, the Cowboys looked a little shaky, like they can be taken. Tony Romo has an injured right thumb and Terrell Owens, who has been a lousy teammate in San Francisco and Philly, looks about on the verge of exploding on somebody in a Dallas uniform because he hasn't been much of a factor the last three weeks.

Either way, neither the Cowboys nor the Giants look out of the Redskins' reach, not after what the Redskins did to the Giants in the Meadowlands. The NFC, despite the differences in the records of the Packers/Cowboys and everybody else, is as wide open as it was on opening day.

The tough fact for the Redskins is that the Saints have a better conference record (6-4) than the Redskins (5-5), which is the primary tie-breaker in case of a multiple-team tie. But at least there won't be an absolute pileup for that last wild-card spot. Minnesota's victory Monday eliminated the Bears, Eagles, Lions and Cardinals, which thankfully removes some very bad football teams, and leaves at least a few decent ones battling for two more weeks with close to zero room for error.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company