The subplots will be intriguing when the Washington Redskins face the Detroit Lions today at the Pontiac Silverdome. Detroit quarterback Gus Frerotte is scheduled to start against the team that released him during the offseason. And he will try to help the Lions end an 18-game, 34-year losing streak against the Redskins.
However, the main story line is plenty compelling. The Redskins began this season hoping to play important games in December. They're getting their wish, as today's game is a matchup of teams with 7-4 records jockeying for NFC playoff berths.
"It's a huge game, probably the biggest game both teams have played in a long time," Frerotte said.
Lions Coach Bobby Ross says he has told his players that if they want to keep playing beyond the end of the regular season, they need to consider each remaining game as important as a playoff game. "We're into like an eight-game playoff," said Ross, whose club is tied with Minnesota and Tampa Bay for first place in the NFC Central. "It's like hockey. It goes on forever."
The Redskins have righted themselves the past two weeks with wins over the New York Giants and Philadelphia Eagles, and are a game ahead of the Dallas Cowboys atop the NFC East. "If we can find a way to win, we can leave there in first place by ourselves," Coach Norv Turner said. "That's what you have to do in December--you have to take care of your own situation and not worry about what's happening around the league."
No current Lions player was alive when Detroit last beat the Redskins on Oct. 3, 1965. Only four current Redskins players--cornerback Darrell Green, wide receiver Irving Fryar, linebacker Kurt Gouveia and long snapper Dan Turk--were alive then.
"We've got 25 guys who weren't on this football team a year ago," Turner said. "They don't even know who won the game between the two teams two years ago."
It will be a homecoming game for Redskins wide receiver Michael Westbrook, who was born and raised in Detroit, and rookie right tackle Jon Jansen, a University of Michigan alumnus. Both could be key figures today. Westbrook will play for a third consecutive week with a cast over the broken bone in his right wrist, but the Redskins could use a big game from him to help reinvigorate an offense that hasn't been quite as overpowering in recent weeks as it was early in the season.
Jansen won matchups with the Giants' Michael Strahan twice this season, and today he will line up against another hard-charging defensive end--Robert Porcher. Jansen said that, even with approximately 200 friends and family members in the stands, he will attempt to maintain the same level-headed approach that has led the Redskins to treat him like a veteran from practically the first day of training camp.
"I take every game the same," Jansen said. "When I was a freshman and sophomore in college, I used to get really excited. And it didn't do me any good. I'd get excited, and by halftime I'd be dead."
Ross seemed prepared last week to reinstall Charlie Batch as the Lions' starting quarterback. But Batch couldn't convince Ross in practice that his ailing right thumb has healed sufficiently, and Ross announced on Friday that Frerotte will start a fourth consecutive game.
Frerotte had a wild ride during his five seasons with the Redskins. He went from being a seventh-round draft choice in 1994 to making the Pro Bowl following the '96 season. But he didn't leave on particularly good terms with Turner after Turner benched him twice last season--each time after only one start--and handed the Redskins' starting quarterback job to Trent Green. Frerotte played down the revenge factor last week, but the Redskins know he would savor a win over them--particularly a win that would damage their postseason chances.
Few people around the NFL expected the Lions to prosper this season when running back Barry Sanders retired just before the start of training camp. But they have been solid virtually across the board.
The Redskins' defense has played better in recent weeks to climb out of the basement of the league rankings, but the unit's depth may be tested today. Greg Jones is playing with a sprained lower back, and fellow outside linebacker Shawn Barber has a sprained right shoulder. Backups James Francis and Eddie Mason could be on the field often today.
On offense, the Redskins probably will be without tight end Stephen Alexander, who has a strained hip flexor. Turner said a decision on Alexander's status won't be made until today, and Alexander indicated late in the week he hoped to play. But Mike Sellers could start at tight end, with Larry Bowie replacing Sellers as the run-blocking fullback.
Turner had his players spend some practice time last week in a tiny gym at Redskin Park with crowd noise blaring from speakers to simulate the Silverdome's conditions. If the Redskins crave a playoff atmosphere, they're likely to get it this afternoon.
They vow to be ready. Owner Daniel M. Snyder said late last week: "I'm looking forward to it. Seven and four is good. But we can do better."
Notes: The Lions signed former Super Bowl MVP Desmond Howard, who was cut by the Green Bay Packers on Tuesday. To make room on their 53-man roster, the Lions released linebacker Andre Collins.