If the psychological effects of winning and losing are measurable, today's game between the New York Giants and Washington Redskins presents an ideal occasion for taking out the calipers.
The Giants probably should not have won last week but did. The Redskins had a victory well in hand, but squandered a 21-point, fourth-quarter lead.
The Giants' 17-13 victory at Tampa Bay, in which they produced just four first downs and 107 yards, seems to have emboldened them for today's NFC Eastern Division matchup at Giants Stadium. Meanwhile, the Redskins will learn how last week's 41-35 overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys has affected them.
"It's hard to tell right now," said guard Tre Johnson, "but I think it will be gauged by this week's performance. The true character of our team will be tested."
With a victory the Redskins would even their record overall and in the division, which could prove helpful as they begin a stretch in which they play four of five games on the road (they also visit the New York Jets, Arizona Cardinals and Dallas). But an 0-2 start would further stretch the Redskins' odds of making the playoffs, which has become a mandate from new owner Daniel Snyder.
The Redskins' most critical task today will be protecting quarterback Brad Johnson from a defense that led the NFL in sacks last season with 54. The pressure will come from all directions: left end Michael Strahan, weak-side linebacker Jessie Armstead (both two-time Pro Bowlers), as well as from corner and safety blitzes.
"The key is to do what we did [against Dallas]: Switch your protections constantly, have a big running game and hit the big ones when you get a chance," Brad Johnson said.
The Giants' defense forced the beginning of the end of quarterback Gus Frerotte's tenure as a Redskin in the season-opening loss last year. After a solid first half, Frerotte was pummeled in the opening minutes of the third quarter, firing two interceptions in quick succession. He was yanked from the game with a sprained shoulder and played only six quarters the rest of the year.
The Redskins' offensive line did a stalwart job last week, helping Johnson, running back Stephen Davis and wide receivers Michael Westbrook and Albert Connell have career-best days. The Giants' pass rush is better than the Cowboys', however, so the line's mettle will be tested.
Washington's coaches will give rookie right tackle Jon Jansen help blocking Strahan. But too much help--whether in the form of a tight end or a blocking running back--would expose left tackle Andy Heck, who faces the daunting task of fending off Armstead and the charge toward Johnson's blind side. It is welcome news, then, that Giants cornerbacks Jason Sehorn (pulled hamstring) and Conrad Hamilton (ankle) are listed as questionable.
To score against the Giants, the Redskins will need a balanced passing game. They hurt the Cowboys with deep throws to Westbrook and Connell.
"You can't live off those big plays," Coach Norv Turner said. "When you make them, it's good. It certainly helps you. You have to have balance in the passing game. We have to be very aware of their pass rush, and we have to react appropriately how we're handling it."
Above all, the Redskins must limit their turnovers, which proved Tampa Bay's undoing. The Buccaneers committed five turnovers, two of which produced both Giants touchdowns. Armstead sacked Trent Dilfer in the first quarter and forced a fumble that Christian Peter returned 38 yards for a score. Rookie cornerback Andre Weathers intercepted Dilfer in the third quarter and made an eight-yard return for the other touchdown.
By most measures, it was the Giants' most anemic offensive performance in almost 40 years. On Dec. 11, 1960, the Giants managed a 17-3 victory over the Redskins despite logging four first downs and 51 yards.
Against Tampa Bay last week, the Giants' running game contributed only 27 yards on 24 carries--an average gain of 1.1 yards. Despite the lowly numbers, the Giants are riding high, according to Coach Jim Fassel, because they found a way to win, no matter how ugly.
"Our team has a tremendous amount of focus and an attitude that we can do it," Fassel said. "It doesn't matter what the circumstances are. The way they went about that game, I think, was a definite lesson to point to. I'm sure that our confidence factor, knowing what it takes to win a ball game, went up."
The Redskins' players insist they're not taking the Giants' offensive statistics to heart. "When they play us, they swell up," said defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield.
Turner and Snyder urged the players to put the loss to Dallas behind them and focus on the 15 games that remain. To that end, defensive end Marco Coleman said much that went wrong last week can be corrected, such as his offsides penalty on a crucial fourth-quarter drive, missed tackles and blown opportunities for interceptions.
"You get lackadaisical," Coleman said. "It's hard to go flawless through the course of a game. If all those things had happened earlier in the game and we got it out of the way, it wouldn't have been so bad."
But the memory was fresh when players resumed practice this past week.
Said fullback Larry Centers: "As I look back at Sunday's game, Dallas did what it took to win the ball game. Even though we played well enough to win the game, we didn't do what it took to win. We have to find a way, in our locker room, to come together and realize that our objective on Sunday is to come away with a win, no matter what it looks like."