When the Washington Redskins face the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday at FedEx Field, they'll be back in the same position they were in against the New York Giants three weeks before. A win could give them some breathing room in the NFC East. A loss could feel like the end of the competitive portion of their season -- and the coaching tenure of Norv Turner.
It's strange to think that a team in sole possession of first place could be in such a crisis mode, but there's no question there's a now-or-never feeling at Redskin Park this week.
"I'd like to play like we don't have any margin for error," fullback Larry Centers said. "I hope everyone else takes the same approach. Our backs are against the wall. It's time for everyone to step up. We have to play every game like it's a playoff game from here on out."
The 7-5 Redskins lead the Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants -- all 6-6 -- by a game. The problem for the Redskins is that they have a game as difficult as they come -- at Indianapolis -- a week from Sunday.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, could win the rest of their games -- at home against the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Jets, at New Orleans, then at home against the Giants in the season finale. The Cowboys defeated the Redskins in both meetings this season, giving Dallas the tiebreaker if the teams finish with identical records. Squandering a 21-point, fourth-quarter lead in a season-opening overtime loss to Dallas at home could end up being the undoing of the Redskins' season, after all.
The Redskins face the Cardinals at a bad time. Quarterback Jake Plummer is healthy again, and Arizona has won four consecutive games to revive its season. Losses to the Cardinals and Colts would give the Redskins a .500 record with two games remaining, and the outlook would be bleak indeed. Owner Daniel M. Snyder has said that the Redskins must make the playoffs for Turner to keep his job beyond this season. A Redskins' defeat on Sunday almost certainly would trigger renewed speculation about Turner's future, and it would be increasingly difficult for him to hold the team together.
Last Sunday's mistake-filled loss at Detroit dredged up the old questions about the Redskins' big-game mettle under Turner. In truth, beating the Lions would have been a huge victory for the Redskins, but it wasn't a particularly devastating loss. Their season comes down to Sunday, against a Cardinals team they beat in October -- when they were playing better than they are now, and Arizona was playing worse than it is now.
If the Redskins beat the Cardinals and lose to the Colts, they would be 8-6 with games remaining at San Francisco on Dec. 26 and at home against the Miami Dolphins in the Jan. 2 regular season finale. The 49ers game would be a must-win for the Redskins, setting up the possibility of a decisive season-ender for Turner against Dolphins Coach Jimmy Johnson, his former boss in Dallas.
"I don't think we shrink from big games," Centers said. "We've made mistakes. The good news is, even though we haven't played well lately, we're in first place. We seem to have nine lives."
Said quarterback Brad Johnson: "Right now, we're in a four-game season. We're right where we want to be. We're in first place. It's a game we feel like we have to have. Arizona is playing good football. They're a good team, but we're in good position to accomplish what we want to do. . . . We have to come out and win football games, regardless of who we're playing. We're down to four games. We have to come out and win each of them."
GOING ON THE OFFENSIVE? As the Redskins look for ways to revive an offense that has averaged 21 points over a five-game span after averaging nearly 35 points in the first seven games of the season, the question is: Do they take what defenses give them, or stick to what worked for them in September and October?
Defenses have adjusted to what the Redskins did early on. Opposing defensive backs are making certain to prevent the long passes to wide receivers Michael Westbrook and Albert Connell that gave the Redskins a quick-strike capability in the season's first two months.
"They're making an effort not to give up deep balls," Centers said. "That was a big part of our success early in the season. We were scoring touchdowns pretty quickly. Now teams are forcing us to put together drives, and we've been kind enough to make mistakes somewhere along the line to kill drives."
The natural reaction for the Redskins would be to run some quick-hitting passes, and get the ball to Westbrook and Connell on short slant patterns. Turner, however, acknowledged this week about those patterns: "It's not our strength."
Johnson says he thinks the Redskins must continue to try to throw deep, even if opposing defensive strategies are discouraging it.
"I think you have to take your shots," Johnson said. "Against Detroit, we took about six shots down the field. We probably took four shots over 30 yards, and hit on one. We had one touchdown called back. . . . We're not getting the 50- and 60-yard chunks of yardage. That's when you throw for 300 yards. That's when you get the big yards."
Re-establishing the running threat of tailback Stephen Davis, the leading rusher in the NFC who has totaled only 112 yards in the past two games, might set up some big plays in the passing game off play-action fakes.
"You've got to get better at the things you do best," Davis said. "That's run the ball and play action."