The Washington Redskins' locker room has not been a place for confident talk in recent seasons. But the Redskins stand alone atop the NFC East as they prepare to travel to Dallas for Sunday's showdown with the Cowboys, and yesterday they sounded like a first-place team.
On one side of the locker room, there was wide receiver Albert Connell saying he doesn't believe Cowboys cornerback Deion Sanders can cover him one on one. On the other side, there was fellow wideout Michael Westbrook saying while Sanders is one of the sport's all-time greats, he expects himself to carve such a niche in the game--although it would help, he said, if he were thrown the ball more.
There was guard Tre Johnson saying he doesn't think the Cowboys defense can do anything if the Redskins offense plays up to its potential. And there was fullback Larry Centers saying he's seeking revenge for the Redskins' 41-35, season-opening loss to the Cowboys in overtime at Redskins Stadium.
"We were embarrassed," Centers said. "We had the game won. We let it slip away, and we had nobody to blame but ourselves. . . . I'm out for revenge. I don't know about the rest of the guys, but I took the first loss personally. I'm going to try to redeem myself and do everything I can to help us win the ballgame."
Connell said: "I take it personal. I mean, we had those guys, and we just made a few mistakes. We're going into this week with an attitude that's just unreal. We're going to get them. I feel confident about that--that we can beat Dallas this week."
The Redskins have won four straight games since they squandered a 21-point, fourth-quarter lead to the Cowboys in the opener. They're a game ahead of the 3-2 Cowboys in the NFC East. They have the league's top-ranked offense, and it all began on opening day when quarterback Brad Johnson, Westbrook and Connell took advantage of a Cowboys defense that was minus cornerbacks Sanders and Kevin Smith.
They're back now, and Sanders changes games with his ability to cover wide receivers man to man. Connell called Sanders "one of the best" cornerbacks in the game and acknowledged it "definitely" will be a different game for the Redskins with Sanders in the Dallas lineup.
But Connell added: "Our receivers are capable of beating Deion or Kevin. Any one of those defensive backs they want to put in the game, I think we can get by them. I don't think Deion can cover me. I mean, he's been in the league 10 years. He's a good corner, an all pro. But I feel right now I'm at that stage of my game where I can just get by anybody.
". . . We're going throw at him. There's no doubt we're going to throw at him. We're not afraid to throw at any corner because we have the confidence our receivers can get open on any corner."
Westbrook was similarly confident.
"Deion is, I think, one of the greatest of all time," Westbrook said. "It's a challenge. But I think I will emerge as one of the greatest of all time too, so it'll be a good matchup."
Westbrook had only three catches in Sunday night's 24-10 triumph at Arizona while Connell, with eight receptions, got most of the action. Westbrook expressed disappointment yesterday with the Redskins' decision to throw away from Pro Bowl Cardinals cornerback Aeneas Williams--and him.
"That's frustrating to me," Westbrook said. "I don't want us to be struggling because we're not throwing to me. . . . Our coaches try to exploit the weak cornerback on the other side, and more than likely he's not covering me. [But] we're winning. That's the main thing."
Tre Johnson said the Cowboys' defense will have its hands full, with all the weapons in the Redskins' attack.
"I don't think anybody can cover AC or Mike," he said. "If by some ill fate that happens, you've got [tailback] Stephen Davis, Larry Centers and Brad Johnson. I'm not worried about them stopping us. If we execute, I expect us to perform well."
The Sept. 12 loss to the Cowboys still gnaws at them, Redskins players said.
"It's frustrating the way they beat us," Westbrook said. "We're keeping that in mind. . . . That motivates us. We use that every day in practice. If not for that game, we'd be 5-0."
Said Centers: "It was a humbling experience for us. I think we learned from it."
Tre Johnson, according to people who were in the Redskins' locker room following the Dallas loss, threw an animated postgame temper tantrum.
He said yesterday: "I was angry. That was the worst loss I ever had in my football career. I was upset. . . . There was disappointment and anger. You had the opportunity to come home with the win and you didn't. That was failure.
"It's constant motivation. . . . That was the game that let us know we weren't that good of a team that particular game. This will let us know where we are now."
The Redskins' rebound from such a potentially devastating loss began with postgame speeches from Coach Norv Turner and owner Daniel M. Snyder stressing it was only one game, no matter how calamitous it felt at the time.
"It was only the first game of the season," veteran guard Keith Sims said yesterday. "You can't pack it in after one game. It was only one loss, or if we had won, it was only one win. You can't tank the season after one game.
"Norv and Mr. Snyder stressed it was only one game. We all talked about it. The guys who have been through it know the season is not a sprint, it's a marathon. You're not a Super Bowl champion or a lost cause after one game."
Tre Johnson said: "That's the level of team we are now. In the past, we probably would have been 1-4 now as opposed to being 4-1. That's the character of the team we have now."