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Destiny Beckons, But Dallas Looms

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, December 27, 2007

After many games, especially in December, Joe Gibbs says, "We have to get ready to play the game of our life." The Redskins coach said it again after last Sunday's win over Minnesota put Washington in control of its playoff destiny heading into the regular season finale this Sunday at FedEx Field against the Cowboys.

Some rolled their eyes. The game of their lives? Surely, the Redskins have a fairly easy win on tap. The Cowboys don't need a victory, won't play injured Terrell Owens, might not start quarterback Tony Romo and will surely give a day off to any gimpy veteran who requests it. The Redskins know they need to win. Otherwise, their only playoff path is if both Minnesota and New Orleans lose. Plenty of motivation, right? Chill, Joe.

But, as usual, Gibbs is correct even if he's corny. No matter whom the Cowboys play or rest, a mediocre effort by the Redskins isn't going to be enough to separate them from a Dallas team that needs one win to set a franchise record for victories. Unfair as it seems for Washington's team travail, the Redskins will probably need to summon one more maximum effort like the last two, when they walked to the center of the ring in the Meadowlands and the Metrodome and knocked the hosts flat on their backs, jumping ahead of the Giants 22-3 and the Vikings 25-0 in stunningly dominant road wins.

"We're totally exhausted," Gibbs said Sunday night. "Huge game next week at our place . . . thrilled to be going back home."

Few teams have deserved home cooking more than these Redskins. But the meal's not done. If the Redskins can't finish their December heroics against the 'Pokes, it'll be a double shame because the team they would face in the first round of the playoffs, the Seahawks, is eminently beatable, even in Seattle. Whenever the Seahawks face a winning team, or even a patsy on the road, they have their hands full. Factoring in strength of schedule, Seattle's 10-5 record is no more distinguished than an 8-7 Redskins mark that is skewed by road losses against the three top teams in the NFL. Washington at Seattle would be a toss-up.

But the Redskins have to get there. The Cowboys, eternal villains that they are, seem intent on spoiling the Redskins' fun.

"Anybody that's banged up some, I certainly would be careful with. But most of our guys will play, I believe . . . I think Romo is all right," said Cowboys Coach Wade Phillips, probably telling the truth.

"We want to win 14 games. Thirteen is the most ever for this franchise, and it's a historic franchise. That would be quite an accomplishment. Somebody may play for that. I'll be coaching for that, I'll tell you that."

Dallas owner Jerry Jones, who's steeped in the Redskins-Cowboys rivalry, will want a win, too, especially since his team gets a bye to start the playoffs. Who thinks grabby Jerry doesn't want a 14-2 record in his first season without Bill Parcells?

"I would guess they would play as hard as they can. I think that we will get everything they've got," said Gibbs, who is acutely aware of how much emotion and energy his team has expended to get this far. "We had four brutal last-second losses. Four in a row, you'd figure that would take the life out of most teams," Gibbs said. Yet his team has found the resources to beat what Gibbs calls "three very physical, tough teams" since they attended Sean Taylor's funeral in Miami.

Even if the Cowboys keep a half-dozen or more familiar names on the sideline, the Redskins should not take them lightly. All season, Dallas has been an elite squad, outscoring opponents 449-298. Even short-handed they're formidable. The Redskins, despite their late-season grit, are still a middle-of-the-pack team that has outscored its foes by only three points and, for several seasons, has found ways to lose too many late-and-close games. Besides, for the Redskins, "full strength" is a misnomer since six starting players are missing.

Many assume the Cowboys will play Romo for a half at most. Isn't the sore thumb that bothered him two weeks ago enough to justify a light workload? What a trump card.

Not really. Washington knows Romo's backup all too well -- it's veteran Brad Johnson, who has a bone in his throat when it comes to the Redskins. In '99, Johnson passed for 4,005 yards, took the Redskins to a playoff win and, as repayment, had the rug pulled out from under him as the team acquired Jeff George. Johnson's revenge? Banished to Tampa Bay, he guided the Bucs to a Super Bowl crown while the far more highly paid Redskins foundered. Then, in last season's opening day at FedEx, Johnson led the Minnesota Vikings to a 19-16 victory as he completed 16 of 30 passes for 223 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions.

Either way -- against Romo or Johnson -- the game figures to be no picnic for the Redskins. And yet sometimes sports offers us the opportunity to say things that are so wonderfully ridiculous we couldn't have imagined them only a few weeks ago. For example, the Redskins' best chance to clinch a playoff spot against the 13-2 Cowboys may be to go for a quick knockout behind the passing of Todd Collins. See, wasn't that fun?

Nobody on earth really knows how good Collins is, including the quarterback himself. Nobody takes a 10-year hiatus between starts, yet spends every day studying and improving just in case he gets a chance to do the job again. It's ludicrous, like a lawyer practicing summations to the jury for a decade in an empty room. But how honorable, too. Collins may have the silliest, most wonderful stat line ever: 18 for 27 for 229 yards -- for the previous nine seasons combined before he finally got his chance in mid-game against the Bears on Dec. 6. He trotted out and won NFC offensive player of the week honors!

If you want to pick an athlete for a child to emulate, maybe you want to reconsider that Michael Vick or Roger Clemens jersey and opt for Collins, instead. His example of perseverance, being ready every day for 10 years and hardly ever being summoned, then shooting the lights out when he got the chance, is the kind of life lesson that normal people might actually use.

Perhaps the true highlight of Sunday's game will be the moment when Redskins fans get to welcome Collins back to FedEx. Maybe he'll lead the team to a fourth straight win. Maybe he'll throw seven picks. It's real life, so there's no happy script. And next year he may be back on the bench. But, whatever happens, if anybody boos this guy, shame on you.

The stage is almost set for the finale of a season that, less than a month ago, seemed like it would be as mournful as any in Redskins history. Now, counting on 90,000 12th men, the Redskins hope to keep alive a season well worth remembering.

But don't let anybody tell you it will be easy.

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