Mike Shanahan's focus on NFC East games has Washington Redskins off to 2-0 start in the division

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 4, 2010; 8:07 PM

When Mike Shanahan took over the Washington Redskins last winter, he had volumes of tape to review so he could assess the players he would inherit and figure out the needs he would have to fill. But when that task was over, Shanahan and his staff turned to another stack of film: The games of the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants, the entire 2009 schedule for the Redskins' three divisional opponents.

"You study schemes, you study personnel," Shanahan said Monday. "You want to make sure that you're on top of everything they do."

The Redskins - if only precariously, and with three-quarters of the season to go - are on top of the NFC East at least in part because Shanahan and his staff have placed enormous emphasis on divisional games. They are just 2-2 overall, but their two wins are over Dallas, in the season opener, and Philadelphia on Sunday, a 17-12 decision that put life back into Washington's season because they're unbeaten in the division.

"To make the playoffs and to be good in this league, you have to win division games," tight end Chris Cooley said Sunday. "We're going to have to continue to play well, but winning at home against Dallas and then here is huge."

It is much too early to make any sense of how the NFC East will play out. The Giants and Eagles are both 2-2, but neither has a divisional win; Philadelphia is 0-1, and the Giants haven't played an NFC East opponent. Dallas, which had a bye week and so has played only three games, is 1-2 with a divisional loss to Washington - and with no chance to notch its first win in the division until Oct. 25 against the Giants.

Shanahan is well aware of all of this. He describes the importance of play within the division to anyone who will listen, including his team.

"That's what we emphasize all the time is the division games," Shanahan said. "We've talked about it, I believe, with the press as well. If you win your division, you're guaranteed a home playoff game. What better way to start off the postseason than, obviously, a game in your back yard?"

It is, no doubt, early for realistic talk about playoff games, particularly at home. Washington hasn't won the NFC East since 1999, when it took its only division title since its last Super Bowl championship, which came after the 1991 season.

But consider the difference in one calendar year. Last season, Washington failed to win a single divisional game for just the second time in franchise history. As they went 0-6 against Dallas, Philadelphia and New York, the Redskins were outscored by an average of two touchdowns, 23.8-9.8. The nadir came in December, with back-to-back home losses to the Giants and Cowboys by a combined margin of 62-12, games that assured then-coach Jim Zorn would not be back.

Already, the Redskins find themselves in a better position in 2010. The first tiebreaker to determine whether one team makes the playoffs over another with the same record is head-to-head matchups. Just a month into the season, the Redskins have guaranteed they can't lose that tiebreaker to the Cowboys, who they play again in Dallas on Dec. 19, or the Eagles, who come to FedEx Field Nov. 15.

"You know you're setting yourself up for great chances in the postseason," offensive lineman Artis Hicks said.

Such a promising start against their most important rivals doesn't, however, guarantee anything. The Redskins have personal experience with that. In 2008, Washington followed a season-opening loss at New York with road victories at Dallas and Philadelphia to briefly take control of the NFC East at 4-1. The result: a 4-7 finish to the season - and no playoff berth when one seemed assured.

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