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For a change, they know how to win

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2010; D1

It's exactly the kind of game the Washington Redskins have been mostly unable to win over the past dozen years. Nobody ran the ball with any authority. Donovan McNabb had, for him, a very sub-par passing night. The Redskins didn't do anything to set the world afire on special teams, and they lost the battles of time of possession and yards gained by a lot.

What they did was play defense, convert field goal chances and let the other guy make stupid mistakes, right down to the very last drop. (Yes, of course it was holding on Cowboys tackle Alex Barron; he had a sleeper hold on Brian Orakpo, who was coming to get Tony Romo.) It's just the formula teams have used to beat the Redskins for a decade or so - especially the Giants, Eagles and Cowboys.

McNabb, who had completed only half his passes deep into the fourth quarter, recognized a save situation when he saw one and completed the throws that sealed the game. Two of them converted third downs in the final few minutes on a drive that produced the all-important second field goal.

It was a fitting beginning for the Redskins, given the drama of the last few months. Albert Haynesworth went on and off the field without an oxygen tank and apparently without a sideline blowup with Mike Shanahan. McNabb, maybe the biggest acquisition in the entire NFL this offseason, had a clean sheet. And the Redskins' defensive secondary, which ought to be a strength of the team given the personnel, played like it for the most part, though it needed some good fortune to survive a couple of blown assignments over the final minutes of the game.

(And if you think the Redskins were lucky in getting that Romo touchdown pass negated by a penalty, that was nothing compared to what the NFL did, by rule apparently, to the Detroit Lions, who had a victorious touchdown pass called incomplete. It's only the stupidest rule in the history of pro football.)

Anyway, the Redskins had to be snickering when they left the yard, having snookered the Cowboys with their C-minus game. It also should be at least a little uplifting to have already guaranteed a split with the team everybody and his mother has picked to win the NFC East.

Except . . .

The Dallas Cowboys could be the single most overrated team in football . . . maybe the single most overrated team in all of professional sports in America. The franchise has won one playoff game since 1996. Every acquisition they make, every game they win is overstated. Their players are overly praised. They haven't mattered in a decade nearly as much as the New England Patriots or Pittsburgh Steelers or Indianapolis Colts or even the New York Giants or Philadelphia Eagles in their own division.

Every single thing about the Cowboys, in recent years anyway, has been overdone. They come into every season being picked to win something between a division and the Super Bowl but limp out to great disappointment annually.

This season the hype has been attached, most specifically, to the Cowboys' offense, to the supposed damage Romo and Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Felix Jones are going to do, blah, blah, blah. Yet, the Cowboys looked like a bunch of stumblebums in the preseason, and pretty much the same through three quarters of the regular season opener Sunday night.

And no part of the evening was more humiliating for Dallas than the final play of the second quarter, the one that gift-wrapped a 10-0 lead for the Redskins, a play that should never, ever happen beyond high school.

With four seconds left before halftime, and what should have been a rather insignificant 3-0 deficit, the Cowboys for some dumb reason had Romo drop back and attempt a pass from his own 28. That, in and of itself, is unwise because Romo wasn't far enough up the field to heave the ball into the end zone. The professional thing to do would have been to have Romo take a knee and end the half . . . or perhaps hand the ball off to run out the clock . . . or perhaps run a legitimate downfield play for the rookie Bryant, just to get him the feel for being in a big-time ballgame.

But no. Romo pitches the ball out, which is dangerous enough. And Tashard Choice, instead of simply going down once he saw no daylight, allowed the ball to be ripped from his arms, which started the play on which DeAngelo Hall ran the silly fumble into the other end zone for a 10-0 Washington lead.

(The Redskins didn't distinguish themselves, exactly, taking a field goal off the board in such a low-scoring affair, a move that would have been examined to death had that Romo touchdown pass stood in the end.)

As is, this serves as a reminder why these Cowboys cannot be trusted, no matter how good they look on paper. It's why the Redskins have every reason to think they can win the NFC East. These Cowboys aren't talented enough or resourceful enough to be a lock to win anything. The Redskins have a more accomplished quarterback, and no matter how likeable Romo is, the point isn't debatable. Jones, among the runners on both teams, is the most explosive, but neither team has a dominant back.

The Cowboys' defense gets a slight edge if for no other reason than DeMarcus Ware is probably one of the five best defensive players in the game. Austin is the best receiver but Santana Moss and Joey Galloway know how to handle themselves. The Cowboys line is slightly better when healthy, but it hasn't been in a couple of years. (Backup or new linemen committed a number of penalties and mistakes that cost the Cowboys dearly last night, particularly in the fourth quarter.)

And the Redskins would seem to have a huge advantage along the sideline. I mean seriously, with your life on the line would you want to go to battle for Wade Phillips or Mike Shanahan?

Okay, even if the Cowboys rate a little bit better than the Redskins, it's probably negligible, no reason to throw in the towel now, especially when you see the Cowboys, game after game over a period of years, do the dumb stuff these Cowboys do. If the end-of-half play wasn't enough, how about the sideline calling time out as Marion Barber rollicked downfield after taking a pitchout that could have resulted in a touchdown?

"At the end of the day, you have to find a way to win," Shanahan said, refusing to sugar coat what had happened.

It sure as hell beats trying to figure out what happened after a big passing day or Clinton Portis running for 150 yards in a loss. "Figuring out a way to win" isn't something the Redskins have majored in over the last dozen years; it's something they haven't embraced or even understood. If that's all the Redskins learned in Week 1 of the 2010 season, and Week 1 of the Shanahan-McNabb tenure here, then it almost certainly will be the kind of discovery the team ought to find satisfying.

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