Four months ago, we all had the Redskins beating the Colts, didn't we? It was supposed to be a gimme, an automatic, the closest thing a team can have to a bye week while still playing. Beat the Colts, try to hang close with the 49ers in San Francisco the next week, right? Now, you would be hard-pressed to find anybody outside of Redskin Park who truly believes the Redskins will beat the Colts in Indianapolis today; Indy is heavily favored to win its 10th straight game and secure a division title. Then again, nothing about this NFL season has been what we expected. The whole season is flipped, turned upside down. And things don't seem likely to change much in that regard over the next three weeks. We like to say of long professional sports seasons, "Wait and see how it's played out."
Well, it has virtually played out and St. Louis is still in control of the NFC, Dan Marino looks ripe to be benched and the San Francisco 49ers have been playing out the string for a month. Very little makes sense. Pittsburgh's Kordell Stewart is lining up as a receiver again. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have designs on a Super Bowl but have trusted their offense to a rookie quarterback. The Detroit Lions are better without Barry Sanders. Bill Parcells and his Jets, picked by many (including me) to reach the conference championship game, are in last place in the AFC East. Bill Cowher's jutting jawline won't fix the mess he's in. Dick Vermeil, who popularized the notion of "burnout," might be coach of the year. The Packers, who have made the playoffs for six straight years, have a slim chance of making it seven. Doug Flutie has played so poorly this season, he's the league's 25th-rated quarterback. Jake Plummer, anointed "the next Joe Montana" by Bill Walsh, has thrown three times as many interceptions (18) as touchdown passes (six). The Denver Broncos could end up with their first losing season at Mile High since 1972. The Rams--the Rams!--have scored 30 or more points in nine games this season.
You know the most amazing facts of all? The NFC-leading Rams are 11-2, but they haven't beaten a single team with a winning record. The AFC-leading Jacksonville Jaguars are 12-1, but they haven't beaten a single team with a winning record. They are 0-3 combined against winning teams. How can we profess to know anything about either, even though both figure to have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs?
If I had to pick one team right now that appears to have the best chance to win it all, I'd go with the Colts. Peyton Manning is the best quarterback in the league, the NFL's MVP. Edgerrin James is, with the Redskins' Stephen Davis and Tennessee's Eddie George, one of the three best running backs in the league. Marvin Harrison is the best receiver in the league not wearing a Vikings uniform. The man is breaking 40-year-old records held by Raymond Berry, for crying out loud. Unlike the Rams and Jaguars, the Colts have beaten plenty of teams with winning records (Buffalo, New England, Miami, Dallas, Kansas City, the Giants). The Colts are 6-2 vs. winning teams this season.
What does this mean for the Redskins? Well, not that much. We paid so much attention around here to the owner meeting with players and players meeting with players, we sort of overlooked two critical results from last weekend: The Vikings' loss to the Chiefs and Green Bay's loss to Carolina should mean a trip to the playoffs for the Redskins. With the Packers and Vikings playing each other this weekend, one of those two will have a seventh loss and will be in serious jeopardy of missing the postseason. Even if the Vikings win, they still have to play the Giants in the Meadowlands and finish at home against the Lions. Even if the Packers win, they have to travel to Tampa Bay the following week. Detroit and Minnesota probably will earn wild-card spots, but not the Packers. Nobody in the NFC West has a shot at a wild card, leaving the Redskins and Giants in good shape. But the Redskins have the advantage, having beaten the Giants twice this season.
Turning away from the wild-card picture for a moment, the Redskins have a better chance to win the NFC East than we might have suspected a week ago because the Jets are certainly capable of beating the Cowboys. The Redskins then could win the division by beating the 49ers and Dolphins to go 10-6 and top the Cowboys' 9-7. One victory very well might get the Redskins into the postseason; two victories make it a lock. Beating Indianapolis would be the Redskins' most impressive victory in several years. But it isn't necessary to make the playoffs.
A bigger problem could be the Dec. 26 visit to San Francisco. It would take something extraordinary for the 4-10 49ers to beat a playoff-caliber team at this point. But wouldn't it be extraordinary if the 49ers believe they'll be playing with Jerry Rice for the final time? Don't expect any announcement from Rice or quarterback Steve Young. Both have made noise about coming back for one more season, although it gets less believable by the day.
It really is conceivable we might be saying goodbye to Young, Rice and Marino. Talk about a spectacular Hall of Fame class! Jimmy Johnson and Marino are making each other miserable. This team isn't big enough for both of them. Johnson has to be careful not to overplay his hand. Recent performances suggest the Dolphins can't win in the playoffs with Marino, but they also don't have the firepower to win without him. The longer they play the games, the more it looks like the big games of winter will be played not only without the Broncos, Jets and Falcons--three of last year's final four--but also without Marino, Drew Bledsoe, Brett Favre, maybe without Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Deion Sanders. The playoffs might be fun; they certainly won't be the same.