According to the conventional wisdom of a few months ago, if the Washington Redskins could get past the tough first half of their 1999 schedule with anything approaching a .500 record, they could run the table the rest of the year.
But an NFL season rife with injury has turned the mighty into meek, while the emergence of precocious youngsters and unheralded journeymen has transformed also-rans into contenders. Those developments, with nine weeks left to play, have scrambled all notions of strength of schedule.
In the Redskins' case, that means fans who in August penciled in wins against Detroit and Indianapolis, for example, may want to reconsider. That's because the second half of the Redskins' schedule, which looked so soft at one time, now has unanticipated challenges in store.
Fox analyst Tim Green, who covered the Redskins' 48-22 victory over Chicago Sunday, sizes up the balance of Washington's schedule as "middle of the road" in terms of difficulty. Among the nine games that remain, Green counts just four the Redskins easily should win: both contests against Philadelphia (2-6), the rematch with Arizona (2-5) and the road game against the injury-depleted San Francisco 49ers (3-4). The remaining games, he says, could go either way. If they lost all five, that would leave the Redskins with a 9-7 record.
Former Redskin Rick "Doc" Walker counts even the Philadelphia games as potential battles, considering the teams' history on the field. But given the capriciousness of injuries in football, Walker is loath to count victories.
"Where I caution anybody to play the schedule game is, you don't know who is healthy, so every game has to be prefaced by: 'Is your quarterback nicked?' 'Have you lost your best cover corner?' " Walker says. "You lose two of your three primary playmakers, and you go from above-average to below-average."
When it comes to handicapping Washington's chances, the health of quarterback Brad Johnson is paramount. Johnson has been the linchpin of the Redskins' explosive offense, and the offensive line has done a great job protecting him.
"The strength of their team is the balance they have on their offense," Green said. "It begins with the cohesiveness of their offensive line and emanates from there. Brad Johnson is one of the better quarterbacks in the league. He is just what you want. He's the prototype: big, strong, he can throw the ball and he makes really good decisions."
Of course, if Washington should lose Johnson, the schedule becomes even tougher.
Of the Redskins' eight remaining opponents (including Philadelphia twice), five have winning records: Miami (6-1), Indianapolis and Detroit (both 5-2), Buffalo and the New York Giants (both 5-3).
In all likelihood, whether the Redskins snap their six-year playoff drought will turn on two factors: how well they play at home, and how they perform in their last two games, at San Francisco (Dec. 26) and against Miami (Jan. 2).
"That's the key--as long as we can play well at home," said Coach Norv Turner.
At 5-2 and alone atop the NFC East standings, the Redskins are in far better shape than would have been predicted after last season's 0-7 start. They played four of their first six games on the road this fall--three of those against playoff teams--and won three of four road games. The Redskins beat the New York Jets and Giants at the Meadowlands in consecutive weeks and traveled to Arizona to upend the Cardinals at Sun Devil Stadium.
But while four of their next six games are at Redskins Stadium, the Redskins don't exactly get a breather this week.
Sunday brings the Buffalo Bills, who tapped the last-minute heroics of quarterback Doug Flutie to pull out a 13-10 victory at Baltimore last week. While Flutie threw three interceptions in the game, he salvaged matters by hurling a five-yard game-winner with 1 minute 35 seconds left. Containing the scrambling, inventive Flutie will be the defense's challenge, while the offensive line must fend off defensive end Bruce Smith, still a handful at 36.
Philadelphia sits at the bottom of the NFC East. But to Walker, a Redskin from 1980 to 1985, the Eagles are invariably tough opponents.
"Philadelphia is always dangerous," Walker said. "It doesn't have the buzz of Dallas week, but it's the most intense physical rivalry."
Having been humiliated by the Redskins, 50-21 at home in Week 2, the Giants should bring the revenge factor, along with cornerback Jason Sehorn, to town Nov. 21. With Sehorn out, the Redskins torched backup corner Jeremy Lincoln in the teams' earlier meeting.
Rather than wilting without running back Barry Sanders, the Lions have rebounded behind second-year quarterback Charlie Batch, who has 10 touchdown passes this season.
Arizona quarterback Jake Plummer is often mentioned alongside Batch as one of the NFL's brighter future stars. But Plummer is off to an abysmal start this season, having thrown 14 interceptions and just three touchdown passes before breaking a finger during the Cardinals' 24-10 loss to Washington Oct. 17.
"Arizona is a team they just absolutely should beat," Green said. "But Plummer will be back by then. And when Plummer is in the game, anything can happen."
With Marvin Harrison on the receiving end of 51 passes so far, second-year quarterback Peyton Manning has wasted no time turning the Colts into a force. Harrison leads the AFC in receiving yards (794) and touchdown receptions (nine). Meantime, rookie running back Edgerrin James has made Colts fans forget about Marshall Faulk. James is the AFC's top rusher, with 633 yards and five touchdowns on 175 carries.
The demise of San Francisco's dynasty has been one of the season's more dramatic stories. Quarterback Steve Young may never return to the game after suffering the latest in a series of concussions. That likely means it will be Jeff Garcia's 49ers who host the Redskins the day after Christmas. Without running back Garrison Hearst, likely out for the season with a leg injury, San Francisco should have trouble keeping pace with the Redskins.
The late West Coast game sets up a short week for the Redskins to prepare for their season finale, against the AFC East-leading Dolphins. Miami has yet to lose on the road, claiming victories at Denver, Indianapolis, New England and Oakland. Whether Dan Marino or Damon Huard lines up at quarterback, the Dolphins defense will likely make that game tough.
"The Miami defense--if they continue at this pace, it's sick how good they can be," Walker said. "But everybody has a flaw. There is no beauty queen this season. It's a matter of who is healthy on a given week."