The Washington Redskins will go a long way toward determining whether they will make the NFL playoffs today against the Arizona Cardinals at FedEx Field.
"It's a division game, at home, against a team that is a game behind us in the standings," Coach Norv Turner said. "We certainly could help our cause by winning the football game. It's fairly obvious to everyone how critical this game is."
The Redskins (7-5) lead the NFC East Division, with three teams tied at 6-6: Arizona, the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants. Arizona has a 5-2 division record, which would settle a tie among NFC East peers. But the Cowboys, with whom the Cardinals split earlier this season, have the easiest remaining schedule. They close with the Eagles today, and then the Jets, Saints and Giants, playing three of those four games at home.
For the Redskins, the road gets markedly tougher. They travel to face the NFL's hottest team, the Indianapolis Colts (10-2), next week. That's followed by a cross-country jaunt to meet the sputtering San Francisco 49ers (3-9) and the regular season finale, at home, against the Miami Dolphins (8-4).
So, there also are weighty personal stakes today for Turner.
If the Redskins make the playoffs for the first time in his six-year tenure, he will return for the 2000 season, according to sources close to the team's management. For the moment, at least, management's thinking is that Turner need not win a playoff game to continue as head coach.
The stakes also are high for the Cardinals, who made the playoffs last year with a late-season charge.
"If we beat [the Redskins], we'll be tied for first," Arizona Coach Vince Tobin said. "If we don't . . . we're pretty much out of it as far as the division chances. It's a critical game for us."
If football is a game of momentum, this matchup--the teams' second meeting of the season--finds the Redskins slumping and the Cardinals riding the crest of a four-game winning streak. The Redskins' offense, so prolific early in the season, didn't score 30 points in any of the past five games, in which they were 2-3. The unit has been bedeviled by turnovers and penalties. The protection of quarterback Brad Johnson, so stout through 11 games, didn't hold up in last week's 33-17 loss to the Detroit Lions. The Cardinals started 2-6, but have new life with the return of quarterback Jake Plummer, who was sidelined for five weeks by a broken finger suffered at the hands of Redskins linebacker Shawn Barber in Washington's 24-10 victory Oct. 17 in Tempe, Ariz.
Precocious and unpredictable at 24, Plummer gives an undeniable lift to his teammates. Said Tobin: "He has a lot of confidence in himself, and other people around him have confidence in him, and that makes them play a little bit better, maybe jump a little bit higher, run a little bit harder because they believe we have a chance as long as we've got him in the huddle."
Scrambling quarterbacks have given the Redskins fits this year. Doug Flutie rushed for 40 yards en route to the Buffalo Bills' 34-17 victory Nov. 7; the Eagles' Donovan McNabb rushed for a team-high 71 yards in a 20-17 overtime loss to the Redskins three weeks later.
Next to Flutie, Plummer is the most daunting quarterback the Redskins face this season, many players say. "He's like a real good running back," defensive end Marco Coleman said. "He's got good vision, good poise in the pocket. He sees it all and really understands the game. . . . Guys like Jake and Doug Flutie just run around, run around, have a good sense of where the line of scrimmage is and sidle up the line of scrimmage and launch the ball 50 yards down the field, off balance. Touchdown!"
Plummer wasn't in top form in his meeting with the Redskins earlier this season. Throwing with a sore thumb before breaking his finger, he threw two interceptions--both grabbed by rookie cornerback Champ Bailey, who added a third interception against Dave Brown at quarterback in the second half.
Brown went 3-2 while Plummer was out. Tobin hopes the time on the bench was instructive for Plummer, whose six touchdown passes this season have been offset by 15 interceptions.
"We won two in a row with Dave Brown starting," Tobin said. "The big difference is, we weren't turning the ball over. Hopefully [Plummer] has learned from that, and will be able to pick his times to take chances and, at other times, to be more conservative."
The Cardinals' running game ranks 28th in the NFL. But it should gain a step if running back Michael Pittman, who missed the last three games with turf toe, returns today. He practiced last week, and is listed as questionable.
Arizona's streaky passing game relies on wide receiver Frank Sanders, who leads the team with 58 receptions, and running back Adrian Murrell. The Cardinals have another threat in the talented rookie wide receiver David Boston, swept into controversy this week when Washington wide receiver Michael Westbrook, joined by other teammates, questioned the propriety of Boston's father, Byron, an NFL line judge, officiating NFC East games.
When the Redskins have the ball, Turner plans a return to the balanced offense that has worked well this season. The running game was virtually tossed aside against Detroit after a rash of costly penalties (14 for 122 yards) left the Redskins in numerous long-yardage situations.
It could be a difficult day for the offensive line, which is without left guard Keith Sims (sprained knee). The left side of the line, anchored by Andy Heck, faces the onslaught known as Simeon Rice, who has 13 sacks. The Cardinals' other defensive end, Andre Wadsworth, is questionable with a knee injury.