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Putting Up a Fight Before Christmas

By Thomas Boswell
Saturday, December 22, 2007

Pro football is not a sport that is known for its tender mercies. But this holiday season, the Redskins have been granted a special dispensation. At a time when the team might have been immersed in sadness, uncertainty, disappointment and doubt, the franchise is energized and blessedly distracted by the possibility that it might actually make the playoffs.

The death of Sean Taylor, the loss of five starters to season-ending injuries, the frittering away of five second-half leads and those prickly questions about Joe Gibbs's future all have been swept aside -- at least until tomorrow. With a win in Minnesota, the team's good cheer will be extended until the last game of the season at FedEx Field against the Cowboys. (Leave tickets at will call for Jessica Simpson.) Why, a playoff game in January, with quarterback Todd Collins on the national stage after almost 10 seasons as a bench warmer, now is a heartwarming if remote possibility.

Even the complexity of the Redskins' playoff permutations is a Rubik's Cube in our stocking. There's a scenario in which the Redskins make the playoffs at 8-8, but also one in which they are eliminated at 9-7. All of this is a holiday gift to a suffering team that needed such amusements and motivation. Except in this case, the Redskins gave the present to themselves, earning it by beating the Bears and Giants with a patchwork lineup, an obscure quarterback and passionate loyalty to Gibbs.

Is the cloud of bad karma that has hung over the Redskins for many years finally lifting? Are awful times, even a genuine tragedy such as Taylor's death, sometimes needed to "put things in perspective." All cliches start as truths.

For many seasons, every petty issue has distracted the Redskins. When a rich franchise obsesses frenetically about winning, the result often is predictable: losing. When you change coaches too often, replace free agent players like furniture and predict greatness before you're even good, team chemistry can become toxic. Excessive expectations can turn into an annual anchor.

That's where the Redskins have been for far too long. Is something changing? In a locker room at the Meadowlands late Sunday night, many Redskins talked about bonding, being closer to each other and their coaches than they had been before. "With everything we've been through, it's made us pull together," center Casey Rabach said.

The mood of rebirth was underlined as Collins told stories about using the owner's plane to fly home to Massachusetts two days earlier so he could be present at the birth of his second child. The next day, he was jetted back to rejoin the team.

In all sports, teams build their own internal stories about themselves. They aren't terribly complex tales. There's either a collective sense that things are going in the right direction, toward cohesion, teamwork and unselfishness; or there's a hint of chaos in the air, self-interest rules and defeat is a premonition in every mind. For years, the Redskins often have been in the later predicament, muttering, "We keep finding ways to lose." It's far too soon to say that has changed.

With the loss this week of linebacker Rocky McIntosh, can the Redskins actually beat the Vikings, who've won five in a row and have the NFC's leading rusher in celestial rookie Adrian Peterson, owner of the single-game NFL rushing record? Minnesota is tough against the run and the Metrodome is sick-to-your-stomach loud. Can Collins beat the Bears without proper preparation, lick the Giants amid high winds in frigid New Jersey, then defeat the Vikings without hearing himself think?

Luckily, the Vikings aren't very good. Neither are any of the other NFC wild-card contenders, including the Redskins. They're all just a couple of turnovers from disaster. That's where the Redskins may have an edge. Collins knows, at least in theory, the primacy of avoiding interceptions and fumbles. Meanwhile, Vikings second-year quarterback Tarvaris Jackson looked as if he was about to come unglued against the Bears' pressure Monday night, missing a handoff and throwing wild off-balance passes.

If the Redskins are as aggressive as they were against the Giants, and Jackson looks as flummoxed as he did in a fluky win over the Bears, Washington should be confident. But still, somehow, the Redskins actually haven't lost their swagger. "We feel we should have won every game we lost this season except the Patriots game," said tight end Chris Cooley, whose team lost to New England by 45 points but to six other teams by only 30 points combined. "I think we'll be a tough team to put away."

"We still have a chance for a Cinderella story," running back Clinton Portis said.

This Vikings game may bring a sense of revitalized enthusiasm to some Redskins fans. Since 1993, the team has been revered for the pride it gave the town over the decades, yet from season to season, it has been a tough franchise to embrace wholeheartedly in its current incarnation. Longtime fans hardly have known how to feel. The Redskins have been too rich to be an underdog, too talented to pity and, worst of all, too mediocre to tolerate cheerfully. Under Gibbs (28-34), Steve Spurrier (12-20), Marty Schottenheimer (8-8), Norv Turner (49-59) and Richie Pettitbon (4-12), it's been pick your poison.

What would revive the Redskins' spirit of old? Where is the franchise that, from 1969 through 1992, made its fans leave RFK with lungs raw from screaming and a healthy case of NFL bronchitis on the way?

Since the night at FedEx Field when Collins came off the bench to keep the season alive, the mood around this team has changed. Tragedy and injuries have removed the anchor of high expectations. Fans know their support is needed once again, and not just the support of their wallets. Everyone who ever owned a shred of burgundy-and-gold garb has rallied around the team again.

Is this feel-good story coming together too late for this season? "You never know the magnitude of those early losses until the season is over," Rabach conceded.

By Christmas Eve, the Redskins may be eliminated from the playoffs. But it doesn't feel that way. This team's playoff hopes should have expired when Jason Campbell was carted off against the Bears. If not then, the winds in the Meadowlands should have blown them away. Yet the Redskins now are facing what amounts to a pre-postseason game.

Put a pox on a Saint as they play the Eagles. Hex a Giant in Buffalo. Jinx a Viking. And let the playoff permutations begin.

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