By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
When the Washington Redskins reconvene tomorrow at Redskins Park to begin preparations for another road trip to play another division opponent, they may have taken what could have been a severe handicap -- three road games against stout foes from the NFC East in the first five weeks of the season -- and turned it into an advantage.
Even as Jim Zorn played the role of football coach in the wake of Sunday's 26-24 victory over the Dallas Cowboys -- this week's game against Philadelphia is "the only game we're thinking about," he said -- it is tempting to consider all the ways the Redskins' outlook changed over the weekend.
Unlike any other sport, football invites fans to go through the schedule, one by one, and chalk each game up as a win or a loss long before they take place.
The NFL remains fluid, of course; just ask the Cowboys, who were being coronated as the new New England last week. Still, after the Redskins face Philadelphia on Sunday, they will be done with their road games within the division, and all three rivals -- the New York Giants, Dallas and the Eagles -- still have to come to FedEx Field.
"It was a game that helped keep the NFC East even, if you will," said Zorn, who gave his players the day off yesterday. "All four teams, I think, are solid teams. It's still anybody's division. Our goals are still ahead of us. I've said that before. We made that so by beating Dallas in Dallas."
In a division that is shaping up to be perhaps the best in football, such an accomplishment could have lasting effects not only beyond this week, but well into the second half of the season.
Consider the NFC East's résumé to this point. The four members are a combined 8-1 against opponents outside the division, the only loss coming when the Eagles couldn't convert a late first and goal in Sunday night's 24-20 loss at Chicago. That mark is the best for any of the eight divisions in the NFL.
The cumulative score in those games for the Redskins, Cowboys, Giants and Eagles is 248-136. The upshot: NFC East teams are beating those from other divisions by nearly two touchdowns (12.4 points) a game. Three of the teams, including Washington, made the playoffs last year, and the Giants won the Super Bowl.
"The best division? Give me a second," Redskins wide receiver Antwaan Randle El said, mockingly putting his hand on his chin. "Come on. It's not even close."
That, as veteran guard Pete Kendall said, "will be borne out over time."
But the Redskins have other reasons to be optimistic about their immediate future. Though upsets happen every week, every opponent they face won't be a "tough, tough team," as veteran tackle Chris Samuels described the competition in the NFC East. Players and coaches, so focused on only the next task, please look away; idle speculation lies ahead. Fans, though, should feel free to peek around the corner.
After Washington plays at Philadelphia -- and the Redskins are an early 6 1/2 -point underdog in that game -- it settles into what could be a comfortable stretch of the season. The next three opponents, St. Louis, Cleveland and Detroit, are a combined 1-10, and only the game against the winless Lions is on the road.
The Redskins will face the Rams in the first game for new coach Jim Haslett, the defensive coordinator who yesterday replaced the fired Scott Linehan. The Lions are going through upheaval in the front office, from which president Matt Millen was fired last week. The Browns have one win, over winless Cincinnati on Sunday.
The Redskins have eight games remaining against non-division opponents. Their combined record, prior to last night's game between Pittsburgh and Baltimore, was 8-19. One of those games is against 0-4 Cincinnati.
Washington's most immediate concern is the game at Philadelphia, where the Redskins have won twice in the last three years. Zorn likes to think of the season in four four-week chunks. The Eagles are the first opponent in the season's second chapter.
"Each game is progressively getting bigger," Zorn said. "Even after we play Philly, . . . I don't even know who we're playing next. But that following game, it'll build. It'll continue to build.
"What I want to do with our team is make sure we sort of start at square one again. We've got that first four in, and we're 3-1. Very fortunate to be 3-1. Happy about it. But now we have to start again with game one, in my mind, and really be solid. Solid preparation. Guys paying attention. It's a division opponent again."
The last time the Redskins faced the Giants, Cowboys and Eagles within their first five games was 1993. But even then, two of the games were at home. No other NFL team will finish this weekend with all its division road games completed.
The Cowboys don't have a road game against an NFC East opponent until Week 9, when they play at the Giants. Zorn, in the glare of his first win that grabbed national attention, claimed the schedule "can't matter."
And while players, in general, agreed -- "You can't change it, so you can't complain about it," Kendall said -- it does, with a win at Dallas now in hand, offer intriguing possibilities.
"It does seem odd to me that we would not only have that many division games so early, but to be on the road for all of them," Kendall said. "We were able to get one [Sunday]. If we could find a way to win a game this week, then something that might have been looked at as a disadvantage might actually be an opportunity come later in the year."