With a spot in the playoffs sewn up, Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs yesterday began steering his team toward another goal -- the home field for a first-round rematch with the Philadelphia Eagles.
That's what the Redskins will be playing for in the final two weeks of the regular season, with a Saturday night game in Indianapolis and a Dec. 30 home game against Buffalo.
They begin this stretch with a 9-5 record and a one-game lead over the Eagles (8-6), who host the Dallas Cowboys, then play in Phoenix. If the Eagles and Redskins finish tied, the Eagles would get the home field because of a better record against either NFC East teams (if they finish 10-6) or against all NFC teams (if they go 9-7).
"Everyone knows how important it is to get that home-field advantage, and it's even more important for us because of our fans and our stadium," Gibbs said. "We've got to do everything we can to hold this advantage."
The Redskins are 6-1 at home and 3-4 on the road, and Gibbs has long said that opponents dread RFK Stadium because of the noise and emotion.
"If our crowd gets into it, teams that are in shotguns and things like that can't audible because of the noise," he said. "You're going to get guys jumping offside, and the crowd can definitely be a controlling factor in these games."
Yesterday Gibbs insisted that he didn't care whom the Redskins played. "I just want to make sure it's played here at our place, and we'll take whoever it is. There's a lot of incentive for anyone we play. The incentive at that point is to win and go on, and both teams will have that."
It's no secret the Redskins would love another shot at the Eagles, who beat them, 28-14, in a Nov. 12 Monday night game at Veterans Stadium. Nine Redskins, including quarterbacks Jeff Rutledge and Stan Humphries, were injured in that game, and the Redskins privately say they will never forget some of the taunting the Eagles did that night.
At one point, several Eagles were heard screaming: "Do you guys need any more body bags?"
Gibbs has refused to get into public debate with Eagles Coach Buddy Ryan and declined to bite when told that Ryan had said: "If we have to play on the road, I'd just as soon play at Washington."
Said Gibbs: "Don't tell me that. Tell our players."
As the Redskins zero in on the playoffs, home-field advantage is easily the biggest of his concerns. In fact, he has a team that is playing so well that he seems inclined not to make any roster changes.
Running back Gerald Riggs, who was injured in the loss to the Eagles, probably will return to practice Wednesday. But even if Riggs is ready to go, Gibbs is hesitant to change a team that has won three in a row.
"I prefer no changes right now," he said. "Unless there's a real reason to do it, I'm not going to make a move. If someone gets hurt, that would change things. But my general feeling is I'm not going to do anything until it has to be done. We're winning and I don't think you start messing with things."
Until Riggs comes back, Earnest Byner will get all the work at running back, and rookie Brian Mitchell will be his backup. Gibbs said one concern is that Byner has never been a 30-carry-a-game running back and that fatigue is a factor.
Byner carried 39 times and gained 149 yards in Saturday's 25-10 victory at New England, and since Riggs was hurt he has averaged 28 carries a game.
"That's a concern because that's hard to do," Gibbs said. "The other side is that you look at him each week and see what he looks like in practice. Give him as much rest as you can, and take it from there. He's comfortable enough to come out and has several times. He does a good job of keeping himself fresh. The good thing is we're not asking him to do a lot of blocking and a lot of other running. He's in very good shape and a strong guy."
His other concern is quarterback Mark Rypien. No one in the organization will say it publicly, but the defense, special teams and running game are all going so well that if Rypien gets hot, the Redskins are as good as anyone in football.
He threw eight touchdown passes and two interceptions in his first three games after returning from a knee injury in Week 3.
But he threw five interceptions in a 10-9 victory over Chicago, causing the Redskins to wonder if they'll get the guy who burned New Orleans for 311 yards or the one who missed about a dozen receivers at San Francisco in Week 2.
"I do need to pick it up," Rypien said. "Everyone else is playing at such a good level right now that I need to maybe do a little more. Chicago was a tough week for me.
"I feel I'm going to have to start contributing more at my position. Everyone is playing a notch above where we were in the middle of the season, and we all need to be on the same page. There's some things out there that each one of us has to prove and I'm included in that."
He has made 27 career starts, and the Redskins have won 11 of his last 13. He has thrown 17 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions over that stretch, and while he has had good games and not-so-good games, these playoffs could establish him as the Redskins leader.
"The playoffs are the next step for me," he said. "You're judged again as a quarterback after you get into the playoffs."
Gibbs shrugs and says a judgement on whether Rypien -- and the team -- has had a good or bad season has yet to be decided.
"He'll answer that for himself," he said. "These next two weeks are important and will give him a chance to get it going. Then the playoffs will be a good test for Rip. It'll be new ground for him, and I think we'll all learn a lot about him.
"As far as the way I'm feeling about him, he's the guy that's leading us. He has played some good football and he has some games that weren't as good. I do think he's matured. He's stepped up in a lot of areas as far as running the ballclub and being confident about being out there. He seems definitely to be more confident. He's a bright, sharp guy. I see more of a settling down and a calmness."