Just six weeks ago the Washington Redskins' season seemed to have been shattered. In their season opener at Redskins Stadium, they squandered a 21-point, fourth-quarter lead and lost to the Dallas Cowboys, 41-35, in overtime.
However, the Redskins have picked up the pieces quickly and won four consecutive games since the debacle against the Cowboys. And when the two clubs meet again today at Texas Stadium, the Redskins have a chance to put a stranglehold on the NFC East race.
A win by the Redskins (4-1) would give them a two-game lead on the second-place Cowboys (3-2). And the Redskins' schedule gets easier from here, while the Cowboys' gets tougher. The Redskins like to regard themselves as Super Bowl contenders in a season in which the NFL appears to lack dominant teams. A victory today could go a long way toward justifying that belief.
"It's a huge opportunity for us," Redskins fullback Larry Centers said. "If we can go out and take advantage of it, we'll be in a great position. Opportunity doesn't come around that often, and when it does you have to make the most of it."
The Redskins' confidence has grown with each of their victories, and they talked like a self-assured bunch this week. On Wednesday, wide receiver Albert Connell said he doesn't think Cowboys cornerback Deion Sanders can cover him. Fellow wide receiver Michael Westbrook said he expects to join Sanders one day among the sport's luminaries. Centers called this a revenge game, and guard Tre Johnson said there's not much Dallas's defense will be able to do if the Redskins' offense is playing as well as it can.
Sanders responded Thursday with a bring-it-on approach. Sanders and fellow Cowboys cornerback Kevin Smith were sidelined by injuries when the teams combined for 1,045 yards on Sept. 12. They're back, and Sanders is capable of dominating a game like no other defensive back. Connell vowed last week that the Redskins will test Sanders. But Westbrook, who is likely to go against Sanders for most of the day, acknowledged that the Redskins must show some restraint.
"Of course you have to game-plan for a guy like Deion," Westbrook said. "He plays certain routes extremely well, and it's best just not to run them. You have to try to exploit his weaknesses. There aren't many, but there are a few."
Said Centers: "He can definitely swing the momentum in their favor. But I think it's more important for us to look at us and worry about ourselves, eliminate mistakes and try to play our type of football."
Sanders also presents problems for the Redskins as a punt returner. Pro Bowl punter Matt Turk has a broken finger, and the Redskins signed veteran Brian Hansen on Friday in large part because of his ability to put well-placed punts near the sideline and give Sanders less of the field to work with on his returns.
In the clubs' first game of the season, Turk dropped the snap from his brother, Dan, preventing place kicker Brett Conway from attempting a potentially game-winning field goal in the final moments of regulation. Quarterback Brad Johnson takes over as Conway's holder today.
The Cowboys will be playing their second game since wide receiver Michael Irvin suffered a career-threatening neck injury during a 13-10 loss at Philadelphia. Irvin had two fourth-quarter touchdown catches against the Redskins Sept. 12, both after Redskins rookie cornerback Champ Bailey left the contest because of muscle cramps in his leg.
"I'm not going to let that happen again," said Bailey, who made three interceptions last Sunday night in the Redskins' 24-10 victory at Arizona. ". . . I like the best players from the other team to be out there. . . . You watch the film of that first game, and we've got a lot of corrections to make. But I'm excited for it. I'm ready."
Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman threw five touchdown passes in the teams' first meeting of the season, the last a 76-yarder to wide receiver Raghib Ismail just over four minutes into overtime against a secondary that was minus Bailey and safeties Sam Shade and Leomont Evans, who also suffered leg cramps.
Now, Ismail is the Cowboys' best receiving threat, with Ernie Mills scheduled to start in Irvin's place today. Running back Emmitt Smith is averaging only 3.5 yards per carry this season and Dallas's offense has sputtered lately, totaling 20 points during the team's two-game losing streak.
The Redskins' defense still is ranked last in the NFL, but is coming off an improved performance against the Cardinals in the first game since the club added Bill Arnsparger to its coaching staff to assist defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. The Redskins' offense, meanwhile, continues to roll. Brad Johnson wasn't particularly sharp against Arizona and threw his first two interceptions of the season. But the Redskins survived, and enter today with the league's top-ranked offense. Running back Stephen Davis suffered a sprained ankle last Sunday but practiced all week and is scheduled to play today.
The stakes are high in the final meeting of the century between these rivals.
"We've taken some steps in the right direction, but we're not where we need to be yet," Centers said. "We haven't played a game yet where all three phases are clicking. What we have now is an opportunity. We have to realize that and take advantage of it."