Mark Twain once wrote, "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." The same can now be said of the demise of the Washington Redskins.
This will come as a shock to the Redskins, as well as to most of their fans, but Washington can still win the Super Bowl.
That's right, this season.
Contrary to popular belief, the Redskins have not been eliminated from the complex NFL playoff picture. They can still be a wild-card team.
Sure, sure, you heard Coach Joe Gibbs say on his TV show Sunday, before his team's upset of Philadelphia: "Now that we're out of the playoff picture . . . " And, in this newspaper eight days ago you may have read the headline, "Redskin Playoff Hopes End . . . "
However, as Yogi Berra said, "It's not over till it's over." And for the Redskins, it's not over yet.
Let's make one thing perfectly clear. The Redskins' chances of claiming the fifth and final NFC playoff spot as a wild-card team are not good. In fact, they're lousy. Syndicated NFL handicapper Gerald Strine contacted Las Vegas guru Bob Martin yesterday to get a line on the Redskins-in-the-playoffs odds. After 10 minutes of computation, Martin told Strine, "It would take between 10 and 12 factors falling in place. No one piece of the puzzle is a longshot but, altogether, they mount up. I'd say the right odds would be about 750 to 1. But, for a friend, I'll give you 800 to 1."
The reason the Redskins, with their 6-8 record, have been given up for dead is that six teams -- all 7-7 -- are ahead of them in the wild-card stampede. What isn't commonly known is that the Redskins would fare extraordinarily well under the NFL's wild-card tie-breaker procedures.
For instance, among those half-dozen 7-7 teams, the Redskins would win any and all end-of-season ties with the New York Giants, St. Louis and Green Bay. Also, the Redskins could win a tie breaker from Detroit or Atlanta -- under the proper circumstances.
Actually, the only one of the current 7-7 teams that would win all ties at 8-8 from the Redskins are the Minnesota Vikings.
There are several scenarios under which the Redskins could win the wild card, including some very weird ones involving that NFL rarity, the tie game. To go through them all would be pointless.
Instead, let's just run through the easiest-to-understand plot that would bring about a Redskin miracle.
* The Redskins win their last two games, against Baltimore (1-13) and Los Angeles (5-9), to finish 8-8. To have any chance, the Redskins must win both.
* The Vikings, Falcons and Green Bay Packers all lose their last two games and finish 7-9. The Vikings play at Detroit, then at home against Kansas City. The Falcons play at Los Angeles, then at home against Cincinnati. The Packers play at New Orleans and at the New York Jets. (This parlay is not an absolute Redskin 'must.' A tie by the Giants, Falcons or Packers would help Washington as much as a defeat.)
* St. Louis beats the New York Giants this Sunday. Then, both the Giants and Cardinals lose on the final 16th week. The Giants finish against Dallas and the Cardinals visit Philadelphia. Thus, the Cardinals would end at 8-8 while the Giants would be 7-9.
* The Detroit Lions, after beating Minnesota this week, must then lose at home to Tampa Bay, finishing 8-8.
Then, what have we got?
San Francisco, Dallas and Tampa Bay are division champions. Philadelphia is a wild card. And Washington, Detroit and St. Louis are all tied for the last wild-card spot at 8-8.
The NFL then invokes its incredible procedure for breaking ties involving more than two teams. First, they test the obscure head-to-head "sweep" criterion; but it doesn't apply in this case. Next, the Redskins, Lions and Cardinals compare their records within the conference. Washington and Detroit are 6-6, while the Cardinals are 5-7. That, according to the NFL office, which has verified all this, knocks out St. Louis and puts the Redskins and Lions in a head-to-head, wild-card tie-breaker category.
Finally, the Redskins win that tie breaker and get into the playoffs by virtue of their 33-31 victory over Detroit.
It should be noted that in any four-, five-, or six-way tie breaker, the Redskins would lose either on the criterion of "conference record" or "winning percentage against common opponents."
Perhaps most interesting is the fact that, if the Redskins beat the Colts this weekend, their chances are fairly decent of remaining alive until the final day of the season. Don't ask for all those permutations; it isn't worth it.
Gibbs was told yesterday that his team is still in the race, and he took the sensible approach. "It's still a long, long shot and I'm not going to stay up and plot out our chances," he said. "When we lost to Buffalo, I didn't feel we had a chance for the playoffs and I guess I still feel the same way. But with the amazing things that are happening in this league, who knows?"
The point, however, is simple. The Redskins have universally been declared dead. And now, the corpse is leaving breath marks on the mirror, with a pulse of maybe four.