A week ago, the Washington Redskins began a seven-game stretch in which they will face teams they are convinced they should beat.
The most notable exception will be their opponent today at Redskins Stadium--the Buffalo Bills, another club with serious postseason aspirations.
The NFC East-leading Redskins (5-2) have lost to the Dallas Cowboys twice this season and the Bills (5-3) have been less than imposing in recent weeks, with quarterback Doug Flutie unable to generate much of a passing game without injured wide receiver Eric Moulds. But after watching film of the Bills the past week, Redskins players said Buffalo may be the best team they have faced this season.
"This is one of the toughest teams we're going to face this year," Redskins quarterback Brad Johnson said.
"They're a very complete football team," Coach Norv Turner said. "They're playing extremely well on defense. A lot more has been made out of their struggles on offense than should be. I think they're a very talented offense. Flutie can keep making plays. They're a good special-teams team. They won a lot of games last year, and played well in the playoffs. They're a good football team."
Flutie and the Bills were one of the NFL's best success stories last season. Flutie returned from eight seasons in the Canadian Football League and silenced those who said he was too small to play in the NFL, becoming a Pro Bowl selection and leading the Bills to a 10-6 regular season record and a spot in the playoffs.
The going has been a bit tougher this season. In Buffalo's past three games, Flutie has thrown eight interceptions. Nine more of his passes were dropped by defenders during that span, and dozens of throws were deflected. The Bills totaled 43 points in the three games and lost twice. There is little margin for error in the demanding AFC East and Flutie has been criticized in some circles, but Coach Wade Phillips continued to defend his diminutive quarterback last week.
"He's still making big plays," Phillips said. "We've won five games, and he's been the quarterback. The quarterback always takes the losses, and I think he's been a big part of the wins. . . . He's done some things, I think, people are not giving him credit for."
Thanks to Flutie's elusiveness, he remains one of the most difficult players for whom defenses must prepare. He has 307 yards rushing this season, and last Sunday in Baltimore he kept the Bills' winning drive going by scrambling for 17 yards on a fourth-and-15 play. The Bills' receivers are so accustomed to seeing Flutie on the move that, for them, it doesn't become chaos when he scrambles.
"Even when he's moving, there's definitely a method to the madness," said Redskins linebacker Shawn Barber, who has a pinched nerve in his shoulder but is scheduled to play today. "It's not just everyone doing their own thing. They definitely have practiced their scramble patterns."
Said defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson: "We have to be disciplined and be as sound as we possibly can."
Moulds, who has missed the past two games because of a pulled hamstring, could be in the lineup today. Phillips said Wednesday he would be amazed if Moulds is ready this afternoon. But the speedster practiced last week, and Turner says he expects the Redskins to face Moulds.
The Redskins' defense remains ranked last in the NFL, and Matt Stevens takes over at free safety today because usual starter Leomont Evans suffered a concussion during last Sunday's 48-22 victory over the Chicago Bears.
But in the three games since Bill Arnsparger joined the coaching staff to assist defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, the Redskins have limited opponents to 83 rushing yards per game while yielding 6.2 fewer points (23.3, down from 29.5) and 76 fewer total yards (357, down from 433) per game than they did in the first four.
"We've made steady progress the last three weeks in the running game," said Nolan, whose defense also has 14 interceptions this season. " . . . We're definitely not there yet, but we're going in the right direction on some things."
Johnson will be the other half of an intriguing battle of contrasts in the quarterbacks matchup. At 6 feet 5, he is seven inches taller than Flutie, and his movements on the field are more gangly. At 31, he's six years younger than Flutie. And with 14 touchdown passes and two interceptions, he has been one of the NFL's most valuable players this season, while Flutie has struggled.
Still, both have overcome some setbacks in their careers to lead winning teams, and Johnson said last week he has followed Flutie for years and admires him greatly. "He's awesome," Johnson said.
Johnson, tailback Stephen Davis and Co. will be working against a defense that is ranked ninth in the NFL, but has only 14 sacks and six interceptions. The Redskins' line has permitted only eight sacks, and veteran left tackle Andy Heck's play has been solid. He'll get a major test today from defensive end Bruce Smith in the matchup that could determine whether Johnson has time to look downfield for wide receivers Michael Westbrook and Albert Connell.
"It's worth the price of admission just to come out and see our offensive line against their defensive front," Johnson said.