PHILADELPHIA, NOV. 7 -- The two best teams to date in the NFC East play Sunday at 1 p.m. on the menacingly hard turf of sold-out Veterans Stadium. One is in first place in the division. The other is in third place. But they both have 3-1 records. Confused? Blame the strike.
Those who have not been subtracting games played during the strike from the standings might think the Washington Redskins will defeat the Philadelphia Eagles easily and keep right on rolling toward the NFC playoffs. The composite standings say the Redskins are 6-1 and the Eagles are 3-4. But the Redskins' replacements were undefeated and the Eagles' replacements were winless. The teams' four other games have been a wash: three wins, one loss.
They met in the season opener Sept. 13 and the Redskins won, 34-24, in their most physically demanding game of the season. But, despite the way they are playing, there has been surprisingly little optimism in the Redskins' camp this week. The Eagles might not muster the respect that the New York Giants command at Redskin Park, nor the hatred that the Dallas Cowboys receive, but they are a good team and getting better, and this the Redskins know.
"If they beat us, it could be the pinnacle of their season," said Redskins tackle Mark May. "Everybody gets that feeling that everything's set up for us and all we have to do is just keep working hard and doing what we're supposed to do and things should fall into place. But you can never take anything for granted, especially a game like this. This game means too much to them."
When Buddy Ryan took over as head coach of the Eagles last season, this is the kind of team that was expected of him. He has built a superb defense in a year and a half, led by all-pro defensive end Reggie White, who leads the NFL with seven sacks. When last we left White, he was romping 70 yards with a football he stole from quarterback Doug Williams for a touchdown to tie the Redskins, 24-24, late in the third quarter. Although he had only one sack, he was nearly unstoppable that day.
But this day could be different. May, out with a knee injury at the time, is back and will play helmet-on-helmet with White Sunday. If there is a one-on-one battle worth watching in this game, that's it. White is a licensed Baptist minister. May is not. One of the smartest, most articulate members of the team, May has been in the middle of his share of arguments with opponents over the years. He likes to make conversation with opponents, if only to set them up for a fall later. White is not easily distracted. This will be interesting.
Joe Bugel, the assistant head coach/offense for the Redskins, calls this game "the ultimate test" for the offensive line. He is one of those people in the NFL who believes the Eagles defensive line might be the best in the business.
On the injury front, Washington wide receiver Gary Clark, who was hobbled by tendinitis and a sore hamstring in his right leg, will start, Coach Joe Gibbs said. Clark stuck around Redskin Park late Friday night, running and working on his leg. "He really wants to go," Gibbs said, "so we'll let him go."
"I may not be 100 percent, but I feel good," Clark said.
It's likely Neal Olkewicz, not Rich Milot, will start at middle linebacker, although a decision won't be made until pregame warmups, Gibbs said. Milot sprained his left ankle last week and practiced sparingly this week.
The only change on the Redskins roster is the addition of 270-pound tight end Joe Caravello, who will be used as a blocker in running situations. The Redskins might sorely need his help, because if there's one thing Ryan dislikes, it's teams running the ball against his defense.
The Redskins just got their running game going last weekend and George Rogers and Kelvin Bryant are healthy. But, in their game in Philadelphia last season, the Redskins were held to only 72 rushing yards and were trailing, 14-0, going into the fourth quarter before coming back to win, 21-14.
Ironically, the Redskins' defense is ranked higher than the Eagles' in the NFC (No. 6 to No. 8), but part of that is because of the replacement teams' performances, plus the Washington defense is playing as well as it has played in a couple years.
In Philadelphia, this game is eagerly awaited by fans who sense their team is bound for the playoffs for the first time since 1981. The veteran Eagles have defeated New Orleans, Dallas and St. Louis, and their offense led them to victory over the Cardinals last Sunday. The defense gave up 409 yards, but lanky quarterback Randall Cunningham, who almost singlehandedly upset Washington at RFK Stadium in 1985, tossed three touchdown passes in throwing for 291 yards in leading the Eagles to a come-from-behind win.
"Normally, when a quarterback runs that well, he doesn't pass that well," Milot said. "But Cunningham's different. He's a better passer when he runs with the ball."
If the Redskins win, there may be no stopping them until the playoffs. On paper, the Eagles look like their toughest opponent in the next three games. After Philadelphia, the Redskins play at home against Detroit and the Los Angeles Rams. But if they lose, they give the Eagles new life and bring themselves one game closer to the pack in the NFC East.
These are situations Gibbs hates -- and Ryan loves.
"It would be a helluva win if we could win," Ryan said. "Washington is the best team in the NFL."
This is just what Gibbs does not want to hear.