INDIANAPOLIS -- With one week left in the regular season, we've finally got a handle on the Washington Redskins: They only win if they have to.
After a disheartening loss to the Giants at RFK Stadium, it became necessary to beat the Eagles at RFK. Done. After another loss to the Giants, in the Meadowlands, beating the Lions became a must. Down 21 points on the road, the Redskins won.
At Philadelphia the following Monday night, the Redskins stunk up the joint when nothing especially compelling was at stake. In the wake of that wretched performance, Joe Gibbs threatened to fire everybody and the team responded by beating the Saints. But on Thanksgiving Day, leading the wild-card race and with nothing tangible to latch onto, the Redskins were smacked around by the Cowboys in Texas Stadium.
Faced with being a .500 team, the Redskins' veterans called a Saturday night meeting before the Miami game. The coaches had done all they could. Too much, in fact. At 6-5, the Redskins were stuck in neutral, up one week and down the next. If they couldn't beat the Dolphins, a third straight season without the playoffs would be a very real possibility.
Another must game, another victory for the Redskins. The biggest of the season. Convincing and overwhelming. Next up were the Bears. Another must game, because a loss at home to Chicago would have left the Redskins with no credibility. Nose to nose with such a challenge, the Redskins passed another test, winning despite Mark Rypien's five interceptions.
New England, a JV outfit if ever there was one, doesn't merit discussion; the Redskins survived a no-win situation. All of a sudden, the Redskins felt good about themselves. They were 3-0 in December, two victories coming against playoff teams. The roller coaster ride was over, right?
Apparently not. Leading by 11 points in the fourth quarter, the Redskins allowed 21 and lost to the Colts. Okay, the Colts aren't bad; they've got an improving and talented rookie quarterback, they were desperate to stay in the playoff chase and were playing at home.
There was one other thing working in the Colts' favor. The Redskins didn't have to win. Not really. Yes, you'd think controlling home-field advantage would be incentive enough. The Redskins beat the Eagles in RFK; in the Vet, the Eagles were laughing, asking the brutally injured Redskins if they needed any more body bags.
The Redskins held the ball twice as long as Indianapolis, they ran up twice as many yards, they rushed the ball down the Colts' throats. They should have won, 30-10. Instead they blew the game and the home-field advantage.
This much is clear: The Redskins are not good enough to coast and win. And for some reason, they have to be convinced a specific game is important. That will get a team, even a team as capable as the Redskins, in big trouble.
At times against the Colts, the Redskins looked downright unstoppable, running and throwing. Earnest Byner has run the ball better than anybody in the league the last six weeks. Other times, though, the Redskins looked disinterested. To have 14 penalties for 111 lost yards is inexcusable for a team that had been playing so well. The Posse, with at least three dropped passes, didn't help Rypien. And Rypien didn't help himself with his seventh and eighth interceptions the last three weeks.
He, of course, will have to shoulder much of the blame. Again. There is nothing for the Redskins to do now except try and convince Rypien he can recover and still win in the playoffs. Now is not the time to change quarterbacks. What you see from Rypien evidently is what you get. Jekyll and Hyde, just like Joe Theismann said.
What the Redskins wanted more than anything these last two weeks was to get Rip going. If he plays well, the coaches think the team can play with anybody -- even the 49ers and Giants.
Instead, Rypien has thrown at least one interception the last five games and has seven touchdowns to 10 interceptions in that span. This newfound nuclear rushing attack may be the only way for the Redskins to win in the playoffs.
The playoffs were shaping up great for the Redskins. The Giants are hurt and vulnerable. The Bears are a M*A*S*H unit. The Cowboys aren't quite ready for prime time, especially without Troy Aikman. And the Eagles can't beat the Redskins at RFK, not in the playoffs. That leaves the Niners, who are better than everybody anyway.
Now, however, the Redskins have to wait around for Phoenix to beat the Eagles to reclaim home field for the wild-card game. Maybe it will happen. Maybe the Redskins need to go into the season finale against Buffalo feeling they have to win. Maybe it's not a bad thing to know you can win if you absolutely, positively must. It's quite a position for a team to put itself in.