Back-to-back wins at Giants Stadium have left the Washington Redskins with dreams of being this season's version of last year's Atlanta Falcons or Minnesota Vikings.
The Redskins entered this season hoping to be a playoff team. They took a step backward when they squandered a 21-point, fourth-quarter lead at home to lose their season opener to the Dallas Cowboys in overtime.
But they have rebounded by beating the New York Giants and New York Jets on the road the past two weekends, and now they look around and see that no dominant teams have emerged in the NFC.
"Why not the Redskins?" fullback Larry Centers said yesterday at Redskin Park. "We have as good a chance as anyone. Right now, it's wide open around the league. The teams everyone expected to dominate are not dominating."
Said running back and kick returner Brian Mitchell: "I believe we have as much talent as anyone. [Sunday] showed we can play in a tough game. The week before showed what we can do when we play well."
The Redskins followed their 50-21 pummeling of the Giants nine days ago by overcoming a four-point deficit in the final five minutes Sunday to beat the Jets, 27-20. That gritty victory seemingly did far more for the team's confidence than the rout of the Giants.
"The last few years, when we played a close game, we lost," Mitchell said.
Said defensive end Kenard Lang: "It shows a lot of character. . . . We probably would have found a way not to win the game" in previous seasons.
A triumph over the Carolina Panthers Sunday at Redskins Stadium would give the Redskins a 3-1 record entering their bye week. They return from their bye to play tough road games at Arizona and Dallas. But then they enter the softest part of their schedule, with two games against the Philadelphia Eagles, a Giants rematch and contests against the Chicago Bears, Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions.
The four teams in last season's conference championship games -- the Falcons, Vikings, Jets and Denver Broncos -- are a combined 1-11 this season. The league suddenly is short on elite clubs, and the Redskins, a year after seven straight losses and a 6-10 record, are convinced they can fill the void.
A year ago, the Falcons rebounded from a 7-9 record in '97 to reach the Super Bowl. The Vikings emerged from a tumultuous ownership change that some thought would cost Coach Dennis Green his job to go 15-1 during the regular season. The Redskins see the parallels. But there also were voices of caution at Redskin Park yesterday.
"It's still early," defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield said. "The thing about championship teams is, they know how to bounce back and handle adversity. There's no doubt each week we're getting better. We're facing different situations and coming out on top. This game showed we can handle adversity -- a hostile crowd, a coach like that [Bill Parcells] on the other sideline, the way the Jets needed that game. We overcame all of that."
Coach Norv Turner said during his weekly news conference: "Our guys have been talking about that since May -- serious talk about it. We have some guys who have been there, so they know what they're talking about. . . . It's something we're very serious about. I know how you do it. It's not by talking about it. It's getting prepared each week, and then playing well. To be a good team, you have to play well at home. We let one get away the last time. We're going to have a real focused group this week."
The Redskins emerged from the Jets game still with the top-ranked offense and lowest-ranked defense in the NFL. Quarterback Brad Johnson remained the league's top-rated passer and Stephen Davis its leading rusher and scorer. Wide receiver Michael Westbrook remained atop the NFC in receiving yards.
Most of the signs continue to be encouraging for the Redskins. They remain virtually injury-free, and they got some breaks Sunday when several crucial calls went their way. They also continue to make their own breaks. They have committed only two turnovers this season, to eight by their opponents. Johnson has yet to throw an interception.
The Redskins have yielded only three sacks in three games. After three games last season, the Redskins had permitted 15 sacks (on their way to surrendering a franchise-record 61 for the season) and had a turnover margin of minus-eight.
The defense continued to give up yardage in large chunks against the Jets, but contributed to the win with some big plays at crucial times. Lang had three of the Redskins' six sacks Sunday in what Turner called the best game of his NFL career. The four starting defensive linemen and cornerback Darrell Green received game balls.
"We made a lot of big plays," Lang said. "The first couple games, we had chances and didn't make the plays. When your number is called, you've got to step up. . . . If we can be 31st in defense and win our conference, that'd be fine with me."
Turner said linebackers Derek Smith, Shawn Barber and Greg Jones didn't play as well as he had hoped. Smith played with a bruised right shoulder and said yesterday: "It was okay. It was weak on a few plays, but it wasn't reinjured. It's getting better, so it should be okay."
Said Turner: "We can improve a great deal in all areas. . . . We have a lot of players who feel they have something to prove. As a team, we have something to prove."
Redskins Notes: The team switched reserve safeties yesterday, signing Toby Wright and releasing Jamel Williams. Wright, who spent the previous five seasons with the Los Angeles and St. Louis Rams, was signed for a pro-rated portion of the minimum veteran's salary of $400,000.
Wright, 28, has started 44 of the 58 games he has played in his NFL career and had six interceptions in 1995. He's working his way back from a knee injury that ended his '98 season early, and the Redskins don't plan to play him until after the bye week.
"They're not really rushing me into stuff right now," Wright said. "I'm just trying to get back into playing form and get back mentally to where I need to be. I'm close to being there. . . . You see the positives here. I just want to be part of a winner." . . .
Wide receiver Albert Connell and place kicker Brett Conway also received game balls. . . . Turner praised rookie offensive tackle Jon Jansen for playing on a strained knee. "He didn't play as well as he did the first two games," Turner said. "But he played well."