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For the NFL's worst, it always gets better when they play the Redskins

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, September 27, 2010; 12:35 AM

ST. LOUIS

If Mike Shanahan and Donovan McNabb had any doubts about what they were getting into, now they know.

Entering Sunday, St. Louis had lost 28 of its previous 29 games. Until the Redskins got here, Rams fans were so depressed that when they tailgated, they took turns sitting next to the exhaust pipe. Now it's Redskins fans who'll need to be talked off the ledge.

The Redskins team that lost, 30-16, to lowly St. Louis is the same entitled bunch that, year after year, produces a couple of stinkers like this. Like clockwork, Washington fans are driven crazy by the Redskins ' ability to play their worst against the NFL's most rotten franchises. In a sense, it's the Redskins' only form of consistency.

For years, we've seen these Redskins lose to franchises that are in the midst of horrific multi-year catastrophes. In part, it's because the Redskins receive so much more attention and adulation than they have earned in the last 19 years that the players are seduced into thinking they are significantly better than they are. Maybe all of us, the whole town, is partly to blame. But the team's internal culture of big salaries, fat reputations and past glories (often in other towns), makes it an ideal upset victim.

When a 6-10 team thinks it's a 10-6 team, this is what happens.

We've seen it over and over. But Shanahan and McNabb haven't. If they want to know their first task, as coaching motivator and quarterback leader, it's to eradicate pestilential losses like this one.

"Leave it to us to give teams [like this] a breath of fresh air," said defensive end Phillip Daniels, who blocked a 21-yard Rams field goal attempt. "This has happened year after year. We've all got to look in the mirror."

As is so often the case in these periodic Redskins debacles, Washington fell behind quickly, 14-0, then fought back, even leading briefly at 16-14 in the third quarter. But by then they'd given the team with the long history of nightmares that crucial sliver of hope that this is their "any given Sunday."

By the end, the Rams had dominated time of possession (34:50 to 25:10), outgained the Redskins 365-349 and seen No. 1 overall draft pick Sam Bradford come close to McNabb in passing yardage (235 to 236) and quarterback rating (79.7 to 78.1).

"I don't know whether you want to call it playing down to the level of the opponent, but whatever you call it, we definitely do that against teams that haven't won in a long time," said linebacker London Fletcher, who led the team with nine tackles. "The Rams haven't won at home in [almost]two years. They haven't scored 30 points in a long time [only once since '07]," added Fletcher. "We all have ownership in this."

That ownership has grown into quite the house of horrors, which the Redskins possess free and clear after many painful mortgage payments. Two years ago, the Redskins lost to these same Rams (on their way to 3-13), then went to Cincinnati in December and lost to the 1-11-1 Bengals to blow up any remaining playoffs hopes in a season that Washington had started 6-2.

Last year, the Redskins' pattern of puking on their own cleats against the lowest of the low began to border on NFL pathology. They went to Detroit and lost to the 0-19 Lions, who'd gone winless the previous season. It was an NFL disgrace, perhaps the lowest point for the franchise in a generation. Then, at home in FedEx Field, a Kansas City team that had lost 28 of its previous 30 games beat them.

"You can't play on another team's level. You gotta start fast, get 'em down. Do little things right," Daniels said. "Because any team in this league can beat you and today proved it."

These Rams were the prototype of the team that brings out the sloppiest mental effort from the Redskins, who had nine penalties. "The offsides and holding penalties just killed us," tight end Chris Cooley said.

Now the Redskins will have to digest that they lost to a team that had been beaten this season by both Arizona and (yikes) the Raiders. Rams rookie Bradford actually kept drives alive more consistently and functioned better in the vital red zone than McNabb.

"Quarterbacks make their money on third-down plays," said Shanahan, praising Bradford's solid 7-for-16 effort on third-down conversions, plus 2 for 2 on fourth down.

McNabb, who must return next week to meet his old Eagles team in Philadelphia, went 1 for 10 on third-down conversions. "Same as last week: You're in the red zone. You have to score but we [only] get field goals," said McNabb, recalling the brutal defeat to the Texans, in which the Redskins blew a 17-point lead with 16 minutes left. "This time, it was a lot of miscues . . . everything collectively happened in the red zone."

The Redskins have their fine weeks, games when they play up to their press clippings and their own entitled sense of their status in the sport. But then the days like this underline why they really were 4-12 last season - and it wasn't a misprint.

The Rams played more than a half without their star, injured running back Steven Jackson. Those who believe the Redskins were not really an authentically bad 6-18 team in the previous season and a half, but were actually a much stronger outfit that couldn't overcome Jim Zorn's coaching, Jason Campbell's work at quarterback and the Redskins front-office's intrigue, may now have to rethink their optimism.

Perhaps the Rams are a team whose fortunes are about to turn and the Redskins merely have given them a boost. Look at the Chiefs, now 3-0 this season. Playing the Redskins can seem like an elixir.

This defeat is especially galling for the Redskins because they should have known that the Rams - somehow - seem to play them tough even when they lose. Last year, when the Rams went 1-15, the only other team they almost beat was - yes - Washington, in a homely 9-7 affair.

The aftermath of this game brought unaccustomed sights. Clinton Portis, whose role may be shrinking and who had only seven carries, was not just humble. He spoke almost in a whisper. A proud Brian Orakpo fumed that "Thirty points is unacceptable. [But] that's what happens when you have a brand new defense and everybody is trying to jell."

As is often the case after such games, Santana Moss, who caught 124 yards worth of passes but also had a fumble that led to a Rams touchdown, exemplified the peculiar out-of-touch-with-reality perspective on defeat that is so exasperatingly Redskins.

"Us giving them this win can help their season," said Moss. "I hope it doesn't affect ours." Oh, no, how could it affect the Redskins' season? What a crazy thought - just because the Eagles, Packers and Colts are on tap, all playoff teams.

Now, the Redskins face the soap opera of McNabb's return to Philadelphia to oppose Michael Vick, who led the Eagles to a convincing win Sunday. "For us, it's a must-win," said McNabb. "No matter who we play [at 1-2], it doesn't matter, it's a must-win."

It didn't have to be.

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