NFC wins will help Redskins down the stretch

By Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2010; 12:14 AM

Despite an NFL record-tying four interceptions against the Chicago Bears, Washington Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall seemed more excited Sunday about his team's standing in the NFC.

"The most important thing is where we're at" in the standings, the two-time Pro Bowler said after the 17-14 victory at Soldier Field. "You remember what I said [in the offseason], that we had everything we needed to be a good team, a playoff team. Yeah, we still got a long way to go, but we're in a good spot."

After last season's 4-12 debacle, the Redskins, at 4-3, are among many teams positioned to contend for playoff berths during the second half of a wide-open conference race. Although their defense ranks near the bottom of the league, and their offense has not functioned smoothly, the Redskins already have matched their 2009 victory total while winning games that could prove helpful in determining playoff tiebreakers.

Coach Mike Shanahan has inspired confidence, and the Redskins believe they're making progress toward returning to postseason play for the first time since the 2007 season.

"We could be better, we should be even better, right now, but we've kind of been underachieving a little bit," inside linebacker Rocky McIntosh said. "First things first, we just have to focus on every game, but we're building momentum."

Tied for second in the four-team NFC East with Philadelphia, which it defeated in Week 4, Washington faces Detroit at Ford Field on Sunday and then begins its bye week. Washington has not yet faced the East-leading New York Giants (5-2), the conference's hottest team, which has a four-game winning streak.

Reluctant to look too far ahead, players declined to speculate on the possibility of having a 5-3 record at the break, "but it would be good to just keep doing what we're doing and being in the best possible position," said outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander. "It's too early to start even talking about that stuff [the playoffs], but it's never too early to just focus on playing well and keep trying to reach your goals."

Washington is one of nine NFC teams with at least four victories. The early struggles of teams such as Dallas (1-5), Green Bay (4-3) and New Orleans (4-3), who were considered the conference's top Super Bowl contenders before the season, have opened opportunities for others, and Washington has surprised to this point.

Winless (0-6) against the NFC East last season, the Redskins already are 2-0 in the division, with victories against the Cowboys and Eagles.

Washington is the only team in the NFC East with two division victories and also has victories against NFC opponents Green Bay and Chicago. Records within the division and conference are among the playoff-tiebreaker criteria.

As the Redskins prepared to face the Bears, they did so with an understanding that "this game [against the Bears] could have playoff implications down the road," said inside linebacker and defensive captain London Fletcher.

Teams that earn playoff berths usually win games decided by a few points. Four of Washington's games have come down to the final play. The point differentials for the Redskins: six, three, 14, five, three, three and three.

Washington is 4-2 in games decided by six points or fewer. In those situations last season, the Redskins went 2-7.

Most games in the NFL "are not blowouts, so you pretty much know you're going to have a lot of close games, it's just what you do in those games," Alexander said. "If this was last year, we'd probably have lost a lot of these games we've won. There's just a confidence level we have now that, as long as we can just keep it close, we'll find a way at the end."

Players primarily credit Shanahan for instilling confidence throughout an organization that qualified for the playoffs only three times in owner Daniel Snyder's first 11 seasons. With Shanahan running both the team on the field and the entire football operation, there is a belief, players said, that things are finally being done the right way, and "that's the difference," cornerback Carlos Rogers said.

"We still ain't played like we know we can play, but we're playing hard and we believe we've got a chance to do something as long as we just keep doing what we doing," he said.

Of course, good fortune helps, too.

Unlike college football, where some teams are not expected to compete with perennial powers such as Ohio State, talent in the NFL, for the most part, is evenly distributed, so good breaks can provide the difference in victories.

In Week 1, Hall stripped Dallas running back Tashard Choice and returned the fumble 32 yards for a touchdown as time expired in the first half of a 13-7 victory. On the final play of the victory over Philadelphia, wide receiver Jason Avant dropped a ball in the end zone that would have resulted in a winning touchdown. And in the third quarter on Sunday, a delay-of-game penalty nullified the second interception of quarterback Donovan McNabb that was returned for a touchdown.

Good breaks, though, tend to even out. Washington's seven second-half opponents (they play the Giants twice) are 24-22. The Redskins also face AFC South-leading Tennessee (5-2) at LP Field and host the Eagles - who are expected to have quarterback Michael Vick back in the lineup - in their first game after the Nov. 7 bye.

In their final eight games, the Redskins also will host struggling Minnesota (2-4) and surprising Tampa Bay (4-2). They travel to face the disappointing Cowboys and Jacksonville (3-4), which is last in the AFC South.

"We feel like we could have easily won a couple more ballgames along the way, so it's not a situation where we feel fortunate at all," Fletcher said of the team's position in the standings. "We knew coming into the season we'd be a good football team. We've played some good teams; we've been able to beat some good teams. Where we're at right now, we're 4-3, [but] we're not happy. We know we've got a lot of work ahead of us." Staff writer Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.

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