Only after a long, cold week of practice, when the Washington Redskins were reminded again and again that the home-field advantage for next week's playoff game could be on the line this afternoon, did they watch that chance disappear yesterday afternoon.
The Philadelphia Eagles as expected took care of business by defeating the Phoenix Cardinals, 23-21, and now the Redskins enter a 1 p.m. game with Buffalo at RFK Stadium with nothing on the line.
No matter what happens between the Redskins and Bills, the Redskins (9-6) and Eagles (10-6) will play their NFC wild-card playoff game next weekend -- Saturday or Sunday -- at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. The Redskins could still tie the Eagles for the second-best record in the NFC East, but since Philadelphia has a better record against division opponents, it gets the home playoff game.
"We weren't counting on any help," Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said. "We'll go to Philadelphia and give it our best shot. It makes things tougher, but we knew after last week's game we were going to Philadelphia. We'll go there and give it our best shot. You can't worry about it. You just have to go on."
The Redskins can thank themselves for this predicament because they handed the home field back to the Eagles when they allowed Indianapolis 14 points in the final two minutes of a 35-28 Colts victory.
Still, Gibbs has insisted his team will go all out to win today's game, saying a victory over the AFC's winningest team (13-2) would be a shot of confidence. His dedication to that point may be tested several times, especially if one team gets comfortably in front.
The Redskins were forced to make roster moves yesterday before the Philadelphia-Phoenix game had begun and they made them as they would for a championship game. As expected, running back Gerald Riggs and defensive tackle Tracy Rocker were activated off the injured reserve list.
To make room for them, running back Kelvin Bryant was placed on injured reserve and cornerback Sidney Johnson was released. Johnson suffered a concussion in the loss to the Colts and wasn't going to play today anyway, and Gibbs said he hopes to re-sign him Monday when other moves are expected.
Depending on the injury situation after today's game, the Redskins are considering releasing No. 3 quarterback Gary Hogeboom and re-signing Johnson. Gibbs also would like to activate backup quarterback Stan Humphries next week.
It's a different kind of game for the Bills, who've already clinched a first-round bye, the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and established themselves as The Team to Beat in the AFC.
If it's a decent test the Redskins want, it's a decent test the Bills can give them. Buffalo has won a club-record 13 games and has eight Pro Bowlers, including defensive end Bruce Smith, who has 19 sacks and an outside shot at Mark Gastineau's 1984 record of 22.
He'll be matched against the best the Redskins have to offer -- Pro Bowl tackle Jim Lachey -- in what should be one of the best one-on-one matchups of the season.
The Bills also have running back Thurman Thomas, who leads the NFL in rushing yards and total yards.
And the Bills have former Maryland quarterback Frank Reich, who completed 15 of 21 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns in place of injured Jim Kelly last week against Miami.
The Bills still hope Kelly will be able to open the playoffs, but no team has a sub quite like Reich, who is 4-0 in relief of Kelly the past two seasons.
"Frank did a great job last week," Bills Coach Marv Levy said. "He was very poised, threw the ball well, made good decisions, ran our offense very well."
Levy has paid Reich the ultimate compliment by asking him to do all the things he asked of Kelly. One of those is a no-huddle offense the Redskins haven't seen often this season.
No NFC team runs it and the Redskins likely won't see it again unless they get to the Super Bowl.
"What it does for you is simple," said Redskins defensive coordinator Larry Peccatiello. "It puts you in a situation where you can't substitute, and sometimes you get caught with players who wouldn't be on the field in those circumstances."
That offense may frighten a lot of people, but none more than the Redskins, who probably make as many defensive substitutions as any team in football.
To keep the Bills from their first Super Bowl, some team will have to win in Buffalo, where the Bills are undefeated, a less-than-tantalizing prospect for the warm-weather Raiders, Oilers and Dolphins.
Levy, who said he may rest some of his players today and that others may play less than normal, winces at such talk.
"I don't think you can count on anything except how you prepare and how you play," he said. "Would we rather be at home than away? Sure. You have your crowd and you don't have what tiring effects accrue from travel. But if you begin to look for external reasons why you ought to win, you kid yourselves. We don't use the term home-field advantage. We make the point that you can play at home so long as you keep winning."
As for the Redskins, they have a couple of priorities besides trying to win the game. The first is throwing the ball and giving quarterback Mark Rypien a chance to get hot.
While the Redskins have all but dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage in December, Rypien has struggled, throwing eight interceptions the last three weeks.
Rookie cornerback Alan Grant's 25-yard interception return for a touchdown sealed the Indianapolis loss, and the Redskins expect the Bills to stack the line of scrimmage and force Rypien to beat them.
"I need to step it up a notch," Rypien said. "I made some mistakes against the Colts, but I've put that one behind me. What we all do now is go out and try to give it our best against the Bills. We still have a chance to do some things this season, and these next two weeks will be important for all of us, including me."
The Redskins would like a hot Rypien to go with a hot running game. Riggs will play for the first time in six weeks, but it's Earnest Byner who has been the NFL's best rusher the past five weeks.
He enters the final game of the regular season with a team-record four straight 100-yard games and 1,185 yards. That's the fifth-highest total in Redskins history and he needs 55 today to jump into second place. He's 162 behind John Riggins, who gained 1,347 in 1983.
Redskins Notes: Johnson didn't complain about his release, saying: "If that's what's best for the team, that's what I want. Hopefully I'll be back next week." . . . With defensive linemen Eric Williams (foot) and Markus Koch (knee) definitely out, Fred Stokes will start at right end and Tim Johnson at left tackle. Rocker and Jumpy Geathers will be rotated into the game in various situations. "I'm excited about being back," Rocker said. "These last two months have been tough. If you haven't been through it, you wouldn't begin to know how tough." He was placed on injured reserve with what the club said was a sore knee in Week 6. But the fact that he had jumped offside in a key situation against the Giants certainly played a role. . . .
The Redskins are 6-1 at RFK this season and have won eight of their last nine there. . . . Defensive tackle Darryl Grant will play his 76th straight regular season game today. He hasn't missed one since 1985.