If the Washington Redskins need extra motivation at FedEx Field today, the memory of their 35-28 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles two weeks ago should do fine. But with the Dallas Cowboys' 20-0 drubbing of the Miami Dolphins on Thanksgiving, a victory that moved them a half-game behind the Redskins for the lead in the NFC East, the urgency is ratcheted up another notch.
"If you're a competitor, and someone has beaten you, you want to get back out and play your best. So there's no question there's an added incentive," Redskins Coach Norv Turner said of today's rematch with the Eagles. "But that's secondary to where we are: The margin of error is very small right now, and we've got to win."
Having been swept by the Cowboys this season, the Redskins (6-4) must remain ahead of Dallas (6-5) to have much hope of winning their first division title in eight years. A two-way tie with the Cowboys does them no good.
Their task against Philadelphia (3-8) is clear, underscored by the sloppy blueprint they drew in their loss at Veterans Stadium: minimize turnovers, stop the run and avoid major gaffes on special teams.
Led by rookie quarterback Donovan McNabb, the Eagles' offense hardly strikes fear in most opponents. But their defense, which leads the NFC with 28 turnovers, is another matter. Six of those takeaways (three interceptions and three fumbles) came against the Redskins.
"Six is uncalled for," Washington wide receiver Irving Fryar said. "It doesn't happen often, and I'd be inclined to bet it won't happen again this season."
Still, the Redskins have stressed protecting the football this week, though Turner insists it's part of the coaches' weekly sermon.
"Turnovers happen for a lot of different reasons," quarterback Brad Johnson said. "If you go back and look at the film close, there were a lot of mistakes all across the board [against Philadelphia]. We played some good football that day. We just had the five or six plays offensively that hurt us, as far as the turnovers went."
Washington's defensive shortcoming against the Eagles was an inability to stop the run. Philadelphia running back Duce Staley matched Redskin Stephen Davis's output of 122 yards by repeatedly breaking tackles. The damage was compounded by McNabb, who, like Staley, is a very elusive runner.
"Our goals going into this week: Number one, we've got to stop Duce from running down the middle," defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield said. "Number two, if we can keep the contain on the quarterback, we've definitely got a chance to win this ballgame."
The Redskins plan to send multiple players after Staley to ensure the first job is done properly. If that means easing up against the pass, the trade-off seems likely to be worth it.
The Eagles are coming off a 44-17 loss to the Indianapolis Colts that Philadelphia Coach Andy Reid called "a total disaster all the way around." The score, which was 30-3 at the half, could have been more lopsided had the Colts not removed running back Edgerrin James in the third quarter and quarterback Peyton Manning soon thereafter.
While Reid professes satisfaction with McNabb's progress, McNabb has completed just 45 percent of his passes, with one touchdown and three interceptions.
The Redskins' defense remains ranked among the NFL's worst, at 30th, but showed new aggression in last week's 23-13 victory over the New York Giants. The return of defensive end Ndukwe Kalu, a speedy 6 feet 3 and 246 pounds, has sparked the pass rush on third downs. McNabb didn't face Kalu two weeks ago, but is braced for more pressure today.
"They came with a little blitz and tried to rattle me a little bit," McNabb said. "I'm expecting a tougher game this week."
The Redskins have tried to address their poor play on special teams by blending some starters into those units. But containing Eagles return ace Allen Rossum is largely a matter of discipline. Rossum buoyed his team two weeks ago with kickoff returns of 89 yards (for a touchdown) and 86 yards during the third quarter.
"We've just got to play better," Turner said of the kick coverage unit. "We had two guys come completely out of their lanes and make poor decisions on [Rossum's] touchdown."
Johnson, by contrast, continues to show poise, turning broken plays into good ones and shaking off havoc caused by onrushing defenders. He has stayed healthy, with help from the offensive line, which today welcomes back left guard Keith Sims, who missed two games with a sprained knee. So far this season, the Redskins are the only NFC East team to start the same quarterback every game (the Giants and Eagles made changes for strategic reasons, Dallas and Arizona because of injury).
Wide receiver Michael Westbrook, playing with a broken thumb, was held to one catch last week. He will unveil a scaled-down cast today that will allow him to use his entire palm. Tight end Stephen Alexander's strained hip flexor is cause for concern. But targets for Johnson abound--running backs Larry Centers and Brian Mitchell, as well as Fryar, the team's third wide receiver who would love to leave a statistical mark on his former team.