More than just first place in the NFC East is at stake today for the Washington Redskins when they face the New York Giants at FedEx Field. The Redskins know that the course of the remainder of their season could be determined this afternoon.
There's no playing down the significance of this one, particularly for the long-term job security of Coach Norv Turner and others in the organization.
"You need to win every game at home that you can. You need to win every division game that you can," Turner said. "And then if you're playing the team you're tied with for first place, you need to win. When you put everything together, it couldn't be any bigger."
The Redskins, Giants and Dallas Cowboys are atop the NFC East at 5-4. Several Giants players have vowed to get revenge for the Redskins' 50-21 victory at Giants Stadium in Week 2, but the Redskins are equally motivated after consecutive losses to the Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles.
"Let them talk. I don't care," Redskins tight end Stephen Alexander said of the Giants. "We're bitter ourselves. We got beat by a team last week we think we should have beaten. We're just as bitter as them.
"They can make it a grudge match. They can make it a word battle. But the way we look at it, the talk's on the field."
In the teams' first meeting, the Redskins got three touchdown passes from quarterback Brad Johnson and three touchdown runs by tailback Stephen Davis. Their offense hasn't been as dynamic in recent weeks, though.
Johnson had three interceptions and two fumbles in last Sunday's sloppy defeat in Philadelphia. And the Redskins cannot be certain what they will get today from wide receiver Michael Westbrook, who plans to play with a cast protecting the broken bone in his right wrist.
If Westbrook is unable to contribute, the Redskins would turn to veteran wideout Irving Fryar. The burden on Davis, who missed practice time last week because of a bruised thigh, would increase and Johnson would have to look toward wide receiver Albert Connell, Alexander and fullback Larry Centers as his primary targets.
As in the first game, the Giants' secondary is depleted by injuries, but this time cornerback Jason Sehorn, who missed the Sept. 19 game with a pulled hamstring, will be in the lineup.
Sehorn, unlike some of his teammates, doesn't accuse the Redskins of running up the score in the first game.
"Any time you get beat like that, it's embarrassing. . . . [But] you've got to run your offense," Sehorn said. "It was a shock. They didn't do anything real flashy. They just beat us. It was a methodical beating. If we go out and play the way we did the last time, it won't be different. . . . We can't worry about how we got here. We have to worry about the seven games that are left."
One of the keys to the Redskins' win over the Giants in September was the play of rookie right tackle Jon Jansen, who kept Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Strahan from disrupting Washington's offense. Strahan has pledged to get even today.
"I'm sure he'll be ready, as I will be," Jansen said. "It's a challenge for me again, and I'm looking forward to it. . . . It wasn't my best game, but it was my biggest challenge. I would hope that I would play a little bit better."
The Redskins already have made one change on their defensive line, benching left end Kenard Lang in favor of Anthony Cook. They hope they don't have to make another after tackle Dan Wilkinson tests his strained back in pregame warmups today.
Wilkinson missed practice Wednesday and Thursday, and said he feared at one point he might have a kidney injury. But he participated in part of Friday's practice and said he felt ready to play.
The NFL's last-ranked defense did a decent job against the Giants' low-wattage offense in the first game. Giants quarterback Kent Graham threw for 268 yards, and wideouts Ike Hilliard and Amani Toomer each had more than 100 receiving yards. But much of that damage was done after the outcome was decided.
The Giants have totaled only 823 rushing yards this season, 28 fewer than Davis alone, and don't have a single player with even 200 rushing yards. So it probably would be difficult for them to follow the formula used by the Bills to beat the Redskins--hold on to the ball to keep the Washington offense, ranked second in the league, off the field.
"Teams have realized they need to come in and control the ball against us," Centers said. "When teams have kept the ball away from us, it has gotten us out of rhythm. Early in the year, we were on the field more. We had more of a rhythm."
For the Redskins, the day will begin with a news conference in which the team will make official its 27-year, $205.5 million stadium naming rights deal with Federal Express, and the game will be the first played under the stadium's new name, FedEx Field.
The day will end either with the Redskins again feeling good about themselves and their playoff chances entering next Sunday's rematch with the Eagles--or with Washington wondering how another once-promising season in the Turner era has spiraled downward.
A loss today would leave the Redskins on a three-game losing streak and with a .500 record, facing the possibility of a seventh straight non-playoff season that would cost Turner his job.
Owner Daniel M. Snyder, however, has stated that Turner's job is safe for the rest of the season.
"No coaching changes are being contemplated," Snyder said. "There will be no coaching changes, period, while our focus is to try to win games, make the playoffs and then do well in the playoffs."